Scientists at Fort Detrick, ca. 1946. Photo from US Army.

The Role of the Old Line State in Vaccine Development

03/31/2020
By Nicholas A. Redding

As the world confronts COVID-19 and searches for a vaccine and a cure – researchers here in Maryland are working around the clock – as they have for decades before – to find a scientific solution to the challenge.

Some of the world’s most frightening diseases have met their match in Maryland – in laboratories throughout the state. Today, as a result of that history and legacy of innovation, fully 20 percent of the world’s top vaccine development companies have a presence in Maryland.

fort detrick IN FREDERICK, MARYLAND

Established in Frederick, Maryland in 1931, Fort Detrick has served many purposes since its beginnings as a small airfield for the fledgling Army Air Corps. As the nation prepared for entry into war, “Camp Detrick” grew and in 1943, the base was home to intense biological warfare research and study. The secrecy of the work being conducted at Detrick was equal to the secrecy of the work being conducted for the “Manhattan Project” which led to the development of Atomic weapons. It was only after the war that most Americans learned of the existence of this program — and the weapons it created which were fortunately never deployed.

The Main Gate at Fort Detrick. Courtesy US Army.

The Main Gate at Fort Detrick. Courtesy US Army.

After World War Two, Fort Detrick’s scientists continued research on biological and chemical weapons, earning the base the infamous nickname, “Fort Doom.” Fortunately, the research on offensive biological and chemical weapons concluded in 1969 and the focus shifted to defensive research and exploration into cancer and infectious disease.

Today, the base is home to U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the National Cancer Institute-Frederick, along with a host of other military offices and federal agencies focused on health and research. The base and its proximity to the local community has not been without controversy and allegations of environmental and health impacts have been made for many years – some of which resulted in lawsuits and great public debate.

Despite these challenges and legitimate concerns, over the past five decades, in these labs, Army scientists and contractors have developed vaccines for anthrax, Ebola, the plague and more — and they are now fully engaged on the development of a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19.

After a recent trip to the laboratories at Fort Detrick, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said, “These men and women have been here before and they prevailed…We’re going to find this vaccine and we’re gonna win in the end.

biotech grows in maryland: a legacy of historic investments

As a result of the location of Fort Detrick and nearby Johns Hopkins University and Hospital and the University of Maryland – the State of Maryland has established itself as a leader in science and biotechnology. Today, as a result of the rich historical legacy of research and development from the human genome to vaccine development, the state has developed the largest concentration of PhDs and scientists in the nation – and is home to dozens of the largest biotech companies.

According to recent research, this scientific activity adds up economically: “In 2017, the biopharmaceutical sector supported $33.8 billion in economic output for the state of Maryland—including $16.1 billion generated directly by the sector, and another $17.6 billion through its vendors and suppliers and through the economic activity of its workforce.”

In challenging times, it is easy to turn to despair and gloom – but all across the state, scientists and researchers are turning retreat into advance and are working to eliminate this latest health threat and those which lie ahead.

Learn more about the history of Fort Detrick

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Nicholas A. Redding · Executive Director

Nicholas A. Redding is Preservation Maryland’s Executive Director and between announcing major organizational updates, he often blogs about Maryland and Civil War history.

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