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Top Military Research Lab Part of Worldwide Search for SARS Cure

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2003 – The military has joined a worldwide effort to find a cure for the sometimes deadly SARS virus.

At the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a small team of scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Ft. Detrick, Md., has trained its microscopes on severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"This [research] does in fact fit into our overall mission in that although we have not had an outbreak in the military yet, if we were operating in an area where the SARS virus was in fact transmitting, this would be a significant military problem," said John Huggins.

An expert in viral research and chief of the laboratory's viral therapeutics branch, Huggins' major concentration has been on screening drugs against viral agents, including Ebola, Marburg, smallpox and now SARS.

Scientists at the Army institute normally work to develop strategies for protecting military personnel against biological warfare threats and naturally occurring infectious diseases.

"Because SARS poses a global health problem for the military and civilians potentially, we were asked to participate in this effort also," he said.

As of May 29, according to CDC, the virus had caused 750 deaths worldwide, although no SARS related deaths have been reported in the United States.

For years, the institute has been part of a government consortium of research facilities that includes the CDC, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The Fort Detrick institute and CDC have existing collaborations on smallpox virus, Huggins said. He noted that because CDC is the only repository of smallpox virus in the United States, USAMRIID scientists routinely travel to Atlanta to conduct smallpox research.

"When the SARS virus came along, it was pretty straight forward to call the people who work with pretty high hazardous viruses at bio containment levels to start working to find an anti-viral drug," he said. "We knew each other's capability and we knew each other's expertise."

Inside a tightly controlled Biosafety Level 4 laboratory at Fort Detrick, some of the world's most dangerous viruses -- such as Ebola are studied. (The SARS virus is handled at Biosafety Level 3.) Huggins said scientists have been working long hours searching for a SARS cure.

He noted that a team of seven scientists at the lab is directly testing drugs; about 20 researchers are working on the entire SARS effort.

Already, 40 FDA-approved drugs currently used to treat a variety of viral infections such as HIV, herpes, flu and hepatitis have been sent to the lab for evaluation by independent pharmaceutical companies. Thousands more will also be tested as scientists investigate whether these drugs, although not designed to be effective against SARS, could prove to have a "cross-reacting" ability to fight the virus, Huggins said.

The strategy, he explained, is to find a "quick fix," to first see if there are any drugs currently marketed that might work against the virus.

"We developed a test tube assay to see if a drug was capable of stopping the virus from reproducing itself, the first step to stopping someone from being infected," Huggins said.

"We used that assay to begin screening drugs currently on the market to treat other viral diseases. Now we're working at a broader area to look for other potential drugs that might have activity ... sort of hoping you'd find a quick fix.

"It doesn't look like that there is a quick fix, although we're still working on some of those."

However, one promising drug, interferon, is still being looked at, said Huggins, adding that USAMRIID scientists have been studying a large collection of interferon compounds to see if any can stop the virus.

Some interferon does, he pointed out. "What we have more work to do on is to see if they can inhibit the virus at concentrations that would be clinically relevant -- that is concentrations of interferon you could give to a patient," he explained. "That is work which is underway and we don't yet have the answer to that question."

Although many questions about SARS remain unanswered and more research and testing must still be done, Huggins said thus far, the institute's research into the virus is encouraging. He said he is hopeful a cure can be found.

"We are working with some pharmaceutical firms that have some very powerful tools," Huggins said. "I am optimistic that we will ultimately find something for this particular virus."

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