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Walter Reed researchers join global search for coronavirus vaccine

NBC News gets rare access to the urgent effort to develop COVID-19 protection.

SILVER SPRING, Md. – In a secure government lab outside Washington, D.C., scientists are on the front lines of a new kind of arms race.

For decades, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has studied infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola and MERS. Now they’re joining the race to find a vaccine for the coronavirus that’s ravaging the world.

"This is a GPS for vaccine design,” said Dr. Gordon Joyce, the institute’s chief of structural biology, as he points to an enlarged image of a COVID-19 protein. “You can drive along a road and you think you're going to the right direction. But with this level of detail, you actually know your destination."

Scientists here now say part of the reason the new coronavirus is so deadly is because of jagged objects sticking out of its proteins – essentially stabbing patients’ lungs. Now the race is on to figure out how to stop them.

What's happening at Walter Reed is one of many efforts, both public and private, around the globe to find a vaccine. It's become a matter of not just public health, but national security.

The initial stages of clinical trials are already underway in China, Europe and the U.S. The first testing of humans with another experimental vaccine began days ago in Washington state.

“I think probably the best kind of arms race, in that we're not working in opposition with one another,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, Walter Reed’s director of the emerging infectious diseases. “We're working in collaboration with one another.”

But any new vaccine that turns out to be successful will likely be in short supply, raising questions about who – and which country – would be first in line.

Still, even a fast-tracked vaccine likely won’t be ready for 12 to 18 months. By then, the hope is the worst of COVID-19’s spread would be over.

The New York Times reports that in China, 1,000 scientists are working on a vaccine and that one researcher insisted at a news conference that China “will not be slower than other countries.”

Dr. Sheila Peel, director of the Walter Reed’s diagnostics and counter measures branch, is among those trying to learn more about the virus now to better help physicians diagnose and treat it.

“This is the most challenging scenario I have faced as a clinical laboratorian (and) research scientist in my entire career,” she said.

Many of the top researchers at Walter Reed say they worked on the HIV/AIDS crisis -- and the tools being used to learn more about this latest pandemic are fueled by technological improvements since then.

“It's very, very urgent,” Dr. Joyce said. “Because we know that if we don't do this that the current pandemic is just going to continue until there are solutions that are effective. And we're doing our best to stop it as quickly as we can.”