A federal government lab nestled in a town of 5,000 people in the Bitterroot Valley is responsible for finding the first vaccines for Rocky Mountain spotted fever, manufacturing the nation’s supply of yellow fever vaccines during World War II and helping to develop a lifesaving Ebola vaccine as the disease debilitated West Africa.
Now Rocky Mountain Labs is turning its attention to COVID-19.
All the neighborhood trees are blooming in the historic timber city of Hamilton, Montana, even as snow still falls on the surrounding mountaintops. Perched right on the edge of town and spitting distance from an inflatable bouncy house emporium, a vape store and a Filipino restaurant is a sprawling campus bordered by a big, black fence that's plastered with “No Trespassing” and “U.S. Government Property” signs.
Some of the most groundbreaking research on coronavirus and other infectious diseases in the world is happening right here.
Rocky Mountain Labs is a part of the National Institutes of Health. Marshall Bloom, associate director for scientific management there, said it’s been on the bleeding edge of infectious disease research for well over a century. Bloom, who now Zooms to meetings, is mustachioed and sporting a pair of thick aviator-style eyeglasses.
"You know I’m sitting here in my office, but until this morning I’ve been home every day," he said.
Bloom has been at home because the pandemic's arrival in Montana changed the way he and his colleagues work. Only essential personnel directly involved in COVID-19 research were allowed inside the labs. That means about 50 people were on-site day to day, out of the roughly 500 that work there.
Bloom traces the labs’ origin back to the early days of the 20th century, when it was studying a mysterious disease crippling the Bitterroot Valley. The illness was later named Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
"The focus has sorta changed from one thing to another, but I think the history of excellence in emerging infectious diseases has continued," Bloom said.
RML has led the charge against Ebola, Zika, and yellow fever, among too many other diseases to name. It’s one of only about a dozen biohazard safety level 4 facilities in the country — which is science lingo for a place that can house the really, really, really bad stuff nobody knows how to cure. Bloom said when a new disease pops up, it’s nearly always guaranteed to find its way to RML.
"There is staff here at Rocky Mountain labs poised to go after that problem," he said. "And that’s what happened in the instance of the new coronavirus."
The lab started running experiments on the novel coronavirus before the first cases were confirmed in the U.S. in late January.
"And as a consequence, I think much of the news and the really, really solid research which has come out about SARS-coronavirus 2 is happening right here in Hamilton, Montana," Bloom said.
Now RML has five teams in the lab exploring COVID-19.
"And if I say they’ve been working seven days a week since the first of February, that’s not an exaggeration," he said.
"Working" in this case means developing and testing a multitude of possible vaccines, antiviral medications and treatments. Since SARS-COV2 is so new, there are still unknowns swirling around how it functions.
"What are the exact mechanisms that are wreaking such havoc on peoples’ ability to breathe?" Bloom asked.
So teams are conducting that sort of basic research, too. The “corona” in the word coronavirus is actually Latin for “crown.” That’s because the particles of the virus have a halo of spikes on the outside. Most images of this regal phenomenon come from RML’s high-powered electron microscope.
All this amounts to what Bloom calls the lab’s “outsized bite” on coronavirus research. But he says all that coronavirus work also comes with a hitch. As the pandemic took hold of the country, RML mothballed all research that wasn’t COVID-related.
"There are a lot of other infectious diseases that have not gone away," Bloom explained. "They’re just not on the front page of the newspaper."
He worries what this could mean for preparedness for future outbreaks. He said vaccination rates — especially for measles — have gone down in response to COVID-19 across the country and the world. And other diseases are likely to pop up as the threat of coronavirus eases.
Still, Bloom said he is proud of the role the labs are playing in a national crisis.
"The work that’s being done has the chance to help someone we all know and love," Bloom said.