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Army specialist helps create a possible Zika vaccine

By: Katie Lange, DoD News, Defense Media Activity
For the past several months, Army Spc. Chris Springer has walked into the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s Pilot Bioproduction Facility, thrown on his lab coat and gotten to work running tests for researchers closing in on a Zika vaccine.

Chris Springer flashes a smile

U.S. Army Spc. Chris Springer flashes a smile as he puts some of his work into one of the facility’s many refrigerators. (DoD photo by Katie Lange)

He’s one of very few service members to get to work on the Zika vaccine.

The Maryland facility doesn’t exactly have the high-tech feel one would expect. The rooms are reminiscent of a high school chemistry class – complete with tin foil, glass jugs and plastic tubes. There are pinkish-beige rounded bricks lining the decades-old walls, which are filled with refrigerators and freezers that give off a collective hum. But it’s not about the aesthetics there – it’s about the life-saving products the researchers create.

Unlike many in the science and tech fields, Springer chose the military over a private-sector career, enlisting in October 2013 after getting a bachelor’s degree from Sam Houston State University.

“I thought about joining throughout my life. After college I looked at my options, and it seemed like [the Army] had the best opportunities for me,” Springer said. “The military really is the most diverse organization or group of people you’ll ever meet.”

He said he had some family in the medical field, so he decided to become a medical laboratory tech. He went to advanced individual training for the specialty and also got an associate’s degree and a certification. He was assigned to WRAIR as a viral technician about a year and a half ago.

“I feel very fortunate. I actually wanted to get a field unit, and they put me here, which is pretty much the exact opposite,” Springer joked. “But I lucked out.”

Water Reed Army Institute of Research

Researchers take a sample from the lab’s fermenter. (Photo by Water Reed Army Institute of Research)

How They Made the Vaccine So Fast

While many vaccines can take years to create, this one took only a few months.

“We actually cleared our calendar so we could do Zika,” said the facility’s chief researcher, Dr. Kenneth Eckels.

So how did they make it so fast?

Here’s the gist:

Pilot Bioproduction Facility researchers received a Puerto Rican strain of the virus, called Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine (ZPIV), from a lab run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February. Zika is a flavivirus similar to West Nile, dengue and Japanese encephalitis, which the facility has worked on before. With those viruses, researchers took procedures they tested in their lab and applied them to producing a vaccine for human clinical testing. Since those procedures are already in place, and Zika is similar to them, that’s also the goal for Zika.

Once initial tests were run by Springer and his colleagues, the virus strain was taken into a clean room by researchers in biohazard suits, who continued testing it. Their job was to make sure the virus strain had been deactivated (much like the flu shot).

Last week, the ZPIV that PBF researchers had been working on was successfully completed. It’s now being tested for purity, safety and immunogenicity (if it produces an immune response).

Where the Process Goes from There

If all of the testing is favorable, the ZPIV vaccine will be given to clinical researchers for phase one of human trials, when human volunteers can test it for safety and immune responses. WRAIR officials hope trials will begin by the end of this year.

WRAIR researchers have also begun taking all they’ve learned about Zika and transferring those techniques to Sanofi Pasteur, a company with whom WRAIR recently signed a cooperative research and development agreement. Sanofi has the capability to manufacture the vaccine at a much larger scale for phase two and three testing – when researchers actually use the ZPIV in areas with active disease to see how patients are protected.

If it’s successful, Sanofi will manufacture ZPIV on a commercial scale. The Department of Defense will then be able to get the finished product from Sanofi for use.

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