In the introductory text for its new Prophecy grants program, DARPA notes that “a large number of emerging pathogens impacting human and animal health are viruses,” rather than bacterial infections or poisons, and hence Prophecy’s task is to stimulate technologies “that predict natural viral evolution” by providing money that advances the science. We’re talking paradigm-breaking science here since the note specifically excludes “research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice.”
DARPA’s worry is that the current state of the art in “antiviral agents and vaccines” involves a retrospective stance, protecting against “viruses that are already endemic, virulent, and medically significant to human or animal health” and that “traditional medicine” looks backwards to well-characterized reference viruses, which may not necessarily represent currently problematic strains that are impacting people. Despite innovations like using cell phones to predict where disease outbreaks may occur, vaccines can take months or even years (if you’re talking about small molecule inhibitors) to successfully combat newly emerging viruses. This is demonstrably true, and it’s a problem if there’s going to be a pandemic (can you remember the fuss about H1N1 and how nobody had enough vaccine?) but in terms of everyday life, it’s hardly an inconvenience.
The new program is designed to stimulate the development of systems that can totally reverse this issue–and result in accurate predictions about the mutational course a virus may follow as it proceeds through a population. The upshot of this could be that the medical and pharmaceutical industry switch from a reactive mode to a proactive one, where they predict and prepare for potential outbreaks in advance. This could result in far more cost-efficient use of resources as well as speedier response times when an outbreak occurs, as well as reduced durations. It’s more than just clever computing of genetic changes or lab-based in-vitro studies, though, the point of Prophecy is to work out if environmental inputs could cause mutations too.
It’s basically a broad-brush attempt to reinvent portions of the drug industry, for the public good. But this is DARPA here, the defense research agency … why are they doing this? It’s because of terrorist biological threats as well as potential state-sponsored biological attacks that may be direct (via diseases like anthrax for example) or asymmetric (using cleverly engineered flu viruses, perhaps). That’s because although the emphasis in the new fund is on “natural evolution” any technological tools developed under the Prophecy umbrella could almost certainly find uses in the prevention of biological weapon attacks. Once again DARPA seems to be recruiting clever bodies outside of its central labs to solve some of its trickier problems again, just as its doing with robotics.
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