One COVID vaccine for all variants? The Army hopes for a pandemic game-changer

The Army’s COVID vaccine started clinical trials on humans in March 2021.

Marcy Sanchez/US Army

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

A new COVID-19 vaccine hopes to protect against all existing and future coronaviruses, and it’s not from Pfizer, Moderna or any pharmaceutical company. The US Army announced early results for a vaccine developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research that includes defense against the now dominant omicron variant of COVID-19 — a strain causing breakthrough infections in people who have received two vaccine shots or more.

Vaccines have been proven highly effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19. Recent Jan. 5 data from Washington state shows that people over 65 are 13 times more likely to be hospitalized and 15 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared with those over 65 who received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson.

As the omicron variant surges around the world and outbreaks among the “fully vaccinated” leave governments and medical experts scrambling, an effective Army vaccine for existing and future COVID-19 variants could become a pandemic-changing solution for stopping reinfection from coronavirus mutations.

The Army isn’t only gunning for COVID-19. Scientists are designing the vaccine to be adaptable for all viruses in the coronavirus family, future and past, including SARS, a virus that infected more than 8,000 people during its last outbreak in 2003. 

We’ll share what we know about the Army’s COVID-19 vaccine, including how it works and when it could become available. Here’s the current status on federal vaccine mandates, what we know about omicron today and eight mask myths putting people at risk today.

The three vaccines authorized right now for use in the US take two approaches to protecting against COVID-19 infection. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA to build up immunity against the disease, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a harmless virus (not the one that causes COVID-19) to train the body’s immune system to respond to COVID.

The US Army vaccine — officially named the Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (or SpFN) COVID-19 vaccine — takes a third approach, using a harmless portion of the COVID-19 virus to spur the body’s protection against COVID.

The Army’s vaccine also has less restrictive storage and handling requirements than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, allowing it to be used in a wider variety of situations. The Army’s vaccine can be stored in a refrigerator between 36 degrees Fahrenheit and 46 F for up to six months and at room temperature for up to one month, according to military scientists. Pfizer’s vaccine requires an ultra-cold freezer (between minus-112 degrees F and minus-76 F) for shipment and storage and is stable for 31 days when stored in a refrigerator.

The vaccine has been tested with two shots, 28 days apart, and also with a third shot after 6 months.

The vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson all target the specific virus — SARS-CoV-2 — that causes COVID-19. Army scientists are going broader and designed their vaccine to be “pan-coronavirus,” meaning they plan to use it against a variety of coronaviruses, including new strains of the virus as they emerge.

Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, founding director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, told the Army Times, “We have designed and positioned this platform as the next-generation vaccine, one that paves the way for a universal vaccine to protect against not only the current virus, but also counter future variants, stopping them in their tracks before they can cause another pandemic.”

Though the Army’s vaccine hasn’t been directly tested on the omicron variant, scientists working on the vaccine said its protection has shown promise against omicron in the lab using human trial samples.

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No date has been set. The vaccine is now going through clinical trials to determine how safe and effective it is. Normally, completing all three phases of a clinical trial can take three to five years, but the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic could speed up the process. The existing COVID vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration were tested, reviewed and authorized in the course of one year. 

After the data from the Phase 1 human trials is formally collected, analyzed and published, the Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials will begin. There is very little information so far on when or how those trials will proceed or if the phases will overlap.

To follow the progress of the Army vaccine trials, visit the SpFN COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker provided by the US Army Medical Research and Development Command.

For more on COVID-19, here’s what we know about how the CDC defines being fully vaccinated, how to store your vaccine card on your phone, and what we still don’t know about the virus after two years.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.