Mike Walters/U.S. Army
Agi Hajduczki, a research scientist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Infectious Diseases, opens a large freezer and takes out boxes of DNA. She is part of a team making a COVID-19 vaccine.
Hajduczki places a small, clear plastic tray under a piece of white paper on the table of her lab. The tray is dimpled. Pale yellow fluid can be seen under the dozens of dimples.
Some of the dimples are clearly more yellow than others.
“More yellow means more protein,” she explains. “So we’re basically trying to get mammalian cells to generate this protein for us, which would then eventually be used as the vaccine in a clinical trial so it kind of looks like the spike, the way it does in the real virus.”
The idea is that the immune system would get to know this protein — through the vaccine — and when the real virus hits, the immune system would know how to fight it.
Hajduczki became fascinated with viruses as a young girl in Hungary, watching her pathologist mother work on AIDS victims back in the early 1980s.
“So even, you know, when the world didn’t necessarily know about that this virus is happening like that was our dinner table conversation,” she says.
Now she has a young daughter, and has brought her to the lab during this pandemic, because like many parents around the country, Hajduczki and her husband are scrambling between work and childcare duties. Her voice breaks when she talks about the effect the virus is having on her work and family life.
“It’s hard because like our whole lives have been upside down,” Hajduczki says. “We work in shifts, crazy hours, super amount of stress. But then, you know, when I go home, then dealing with the whole thing, like going to Trader Joe’s is like a two-hour excursion now, and I have a kid who has been at home from school…I have to kind of explain to her what’s going on.”
The vaccine Hajduczki’s working on will take some time, and won’t just target the current coronavirus. Human trials aren’t expected to start until later in the fall.
“The most cost effective and impactful public health tool”
A supply cart rolls down the long corridors at the institute just outside Washington, D.C, past labs and displays picturing nineteenth century scientists, letters and artifacts. There are closed doors with small signs on the wall. One says “Viral diseases.” Another simply, “Malaria.”
Inside one of these offices is the scientist heading Army efforts to aid in the race for a vaccine for the current pandemic: Kayvon Modjarrad, a civilian doctor. He’s a large man, with wireless glasses and an easygoing manner. His parents came from Iran to New York City back in the 1970s. He became interested in vaccines after taking a class as a medical student.
“I decided that I wanted to work on vaccines,” he says, “because it is the most cost effective and impactful public health tool that we have to saving lives.”
Modjarrad says he knew he was interested in medicine early on, “I got my first Fisher-Price doctor’s kit when I was four for the Persian New Year.”
Modjarrad is developing the Army’s coronavirus vaccines, but is also part of Operation Warp Speed, the…