Maryland Army National Guardsmen
© Sgt. Chazz Kibler/National Guard)Maryland Army National Guardsmen fill out medical paperwork to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the U.S. Capitol Complex in Washington on Jan. 14, 2021.
A unique vaccine produced by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research started clinical testing Tuesday, and Army researchers hope it will combat variants of SARS-COV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The vaccine, called spike ferritin nanoparticle, or SpFN, could also help fight other coronaviruses, a group of related RNA viruses that often cause respiratory-related diseases in mammals.

Army researchers have been tracking the threat posed by new coronaviruses even before the pandemic, according to Kayvon Modjarrad, director of emerging infectious diseases at Walter Reed. That threat has been accelerating in recent years.

"That's why we need a vaccine like this: one that has potential to protect broadly and proactively against multiple coronavirus species and strains," Modjarrad said in a statement announcing the SpFN testing.

The Defense Department has had a combined total of more than 271,000 COVID-19 cases. Of those, 3,814 people have been hospitalized and 332 people have died. Twenty-four of the dead have been service members and 11 have been dependents.

Vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna were approved under an emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are available to troops.

The Pentagon has made vaccinating the force a readiness issue so that military operations can return to pre-pandemic norms. Though there was some trouble in lobbying troops to take the voluntary vaccine early on, vaccination rates appear to be rising in recent weeks.

"The more people who get vaccinated as quickly as possible, the level of virus transmission decreases, which gives it less opportunity to continue to mutate," Dr. Steven Cersovsky, deputy director of the Army Public Health Center, said in late February.

New variants of COVID-19 have emerged in South Africa and the United Kingdom. But Army medical personnel are hopeful that the current vaccines can combat those new strains. But if there's trouble, Walter Reed's vaccine may prove timely.

"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," Modjarrad said.

Pre-clinical studies indicated that SpFN induces very strong antibody responses in patients, curbing the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, as well as three major SARS-CoV-2 variants and the SARS-CoV-1 virus.

The phase 1 study is being conducted at Walter Reed's Clinical Trials Center and will enroll 72 healthy adult volunteers between the ages of 18-55. Participants will be randomly placed in placebo or experimental groups.

The clinical trial of SpFN is sponsored by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command.

The vaccine was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research with support from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Inc.