WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
It takes years to develop vaccines, but when pandemics emerge you only have months and that’s not enough time so DARPA are trying to create a therapeutic shield to protect people until they arrive.
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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been highlighting some of the innovative ways, in some cases very innovative life-saving ways that governments and people around the world have been using to try to battle the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19. And this week I’m going to turn my attention from fighting the spread of the disease that’s so far infected over 700,000 people and killed over 20,000 to killing it.
A couple of weeks ago I talked about how the US government and big pharma were using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and supercomputers to discover viable compounds that could be used to create a new COVID-19 vaccine. But before then, many years ago, I discussed a new initiative run by the bleeding edge research arm of the US military, DARPA, called the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) that aimed to “dramatically accelerate discovery, integration, pre-clinical testing, and manufacturing of medical countermeasures against infectious diseases.” AKA identify and kill pandemics and pandemic diseases within just 90 days of their emergence – bearing in mind that this activity, to go from identification to vaccine, used to take ten years and even with every government and pharmaceutical company in the world focusing on the space will still likely take over 18 months.
Defeat a Pandemic in 60 days
While at the time DARPA couldn’t have predicted COVID-19 it’s absolutely clear that we need the P3 platform, now more than ever, so in order to try to accelerate the development of a “cure” DARPA are now working on creating what they call a therapeutic “shield” that could be mass produced to provide temporary protection for people from diseases like the coronavirus, boosting their immunity until an actual Covid-9 vaccine is developed. The result could also help slow the viruses’ advance, buying time for hard-pressed hospitals and clinics worldwide.
At the moment DARPA is funding efforts to create such a shield, or therapy, by studying COVID-19 samples from individuals who have already recovered from the virus, and scientists working with the organisation’s P3 teams are currently sequencing the B cells of one individual who recovered from COVID-19. B cells create antibodies, proteins created by the human immune system to fight a particular invading microorganism.
If scientists can successfully sequence the B cells, the hope is that they can create a therapy that causes humans to build up an arsenal of COVID-19-fighting antibodies before infection takes place. That could make it more difficult for a person treated with the therapy to come down with the disease, buying time until that person can be vaccinated. According to DefenseOne, the therapy might also be useful for those already infected with the virus.
In many countries fighting the disease the key to keeping mortality down is the availability of intensive care unit beds and respirators. If the number of patients exceeds the number of critical care beds, mortality begins to rise. A therapeutic could spread out infections over a longer period of time, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed.
But as and when the therapy is developed it could be controversial. Similar therapies, according to NPR, have only involved tens of test subjects, not hundreds or even thousands. The science behind the process is sound and progress could be rapid: the head of the PPP program is quoted by NPR as saying the therapy could be ready in as little as three months, which would be a stupendous achievement especially as according to most medical authorities, a COVID-19 vaccine is at least 12-18 months away.
The US is currently under-testing compared to much of the industrialiSed world, and we don’t know the extent of the disease’s spread so DARPA’s therapeutic could become instrumental in fighting the spread of the disease across the US, and even the world.