“How a secretive Pentagon agency seeded the ground for a rapid coronavirus cure”
“´Ringing people´s doorbells´ Established in 1958 in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, DARPA was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower out of a sense of urgency.
Washington could have sent the first satellite to space, but Moscow got there first — and it wasn’t because the United States lacked the science. The American government simply didn’t move fast enough.
DARPA was the answer to that problem.
The nimble military science research agency wouldn’t invent things itself. Rather, its officials would look across the American scientific landscape — to universities, military labs and defense contractors — and channel emerging technologies into risky mega-endeavors to prevent another Sputnik. The agency’s pie-in-the-sky projects would have a high risk of failure, but if successful, would transform the U.S. military and possibly society, too.
Over the years, DARPA-funded projects have created the building blocks of GPS, the first computer mouse and the protocols that underpin the modern Internet. The agency pioneered stealth technology that made American fighter jets all but invisible to enemy radar. And it advanced a bevy of new weaponry, including drones.
In the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a series of anthrax incidents, combined with overseas intelligence about potential biological threats, heightened fears of bioterrorism and drove DARPA to invest in faster ways to respond, including technology to accelerate vaccine development, spot emerging viruses and speed up pharmaceutical manufacturing.
A decade ago, a brainy Air Force doctor named Dan Wattendorf helped push rapid pandemic response further to the top of DARPA’s priority list.
Regularly citing the 1918 flu pandemic, the DARPA program manager saw how a novel pathogen, whether from another species or an enemy’s lab, could cripple the American military in the field.
“If we need to deploy someone in harm’s way and it’s a new virus, you don’t have time to wait for a new vaccine,” Wattendorf said. “That could be a decade.”
Wattendorf had ideas for a solution. In 2010, he took to a conference room at DARPA headquarters in Northern Virginia with notes scribbled on his hand to make a pitch.
At the time, the Obama administration was emphasizing the need to step up pandemic response capabilities in the wake of the H1N1 outbreak, and DARPA was increasingly focusing on biology — an emphasis that would lead to the agency’s first biotechnology office in 2014.
In the conference room, Wattendorf outlined his ideas to agency higher-ups. Regina E. Dugan, the DARPA director at the time, ribbed him for the writing on his hand before greenlighting his proposal.
The result was a program called ADEPT, which invested $291 million from 2011 to 2019 in an array of technologies — including a credit card-sized device for rapid antibody discovery developed by the Vancouver-based firm AbCellera — that, taken together, could significantly reduce the timelines for vaccines and antibodies.
“It may turn out to be the most important program from my time at the agency,” said Dugan, who ran DARPA from 2009 to 2012.
Chief among Wattendorf’s targets for the program: delivering vaccines and antibodies by implanting their genetic code.
CureVac was also funded by DARPA.
When covid-19 arrived in the United States, the program’s participants — AbCellera, Vanderbilt University, Duke University and AstraZeneca — had already done test runs with various viruses to see where they could cut time on their quest to hit the 60-day goal.”