WASHINGTON — Here is how to outsmart and then beat COVID-19 — maybe as soon as the end of summer.
You start years ago, anticipating possible future challenges based on current virus threats. You then simultaneously attack the virus threat at hand while thinking long-range — extrapolating how to take what you achieve against one virus and use that to build a stouter defense against newcomers.
Then, when that new threat arrives — such as COVID-19 — you already have the foundation. You can shift resources and brainpower onto the urgent, current need. That cuts the time of trial and error and incubations of solutions so help comes sooner rather than much later.
Good game plan — and one that is underway right now at DARPA as it matches wits with COVID-19.
“From day one, we have been preparing for something like this,” Dr. Brad Ringeisen, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said in an interview. “This is a tremendously difficult problem.”
DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; it is the research and innovation wing of the Pentagon.
A new test to diagnose COVID-19 is on track to be ready by the end of summer, Ringeisen said. It may also be a means to work across a wide spectrum of virus detection, which would be invaluable if COVID-19 begins to mutate.
The agency was able to shift focus to COVID-19 quickly because of previous work dealing with antibodies and gene editing technologies to combat threats like Zika, Ebola, and the Chikungunya virus. DARPA also looked to develop ways for diagnosing those who have become poisoned by chemical warfare, knowledge also being used against COVID-19.
DARPA contracts with labs across the country to perform the testing and work, guiding and prodding and enforcing deadlines. In the past, the work has produced a phase one vaccination for the Chikungunya virus.
But DARPA is staying out of the vaccine business. Instead, “we are looking for ways to better detect and better diagnose earlier,” Ringeisen said. “We were very well-positioned from past programs to pivot to COVID-19.”
One area DARPA is closing in on is developing a test that can detect the presence of COVID-19 as soon as 24 hours after a person is infected. That is well before an infected individual experiences symptoms and several days before the virus can spread to others. If administered quickly enough, DARPA’s test could significantly expand the ability to isolate pre-infectious cases and track the spread of the virus.
It works because it takes how our bodies start adjusting and adapting to infection and begin to leave genetic marks on the genome. DARPA looks to identify host epigenetic marks that are specific to COVID-19 and build a counter.
“You have to have a good blood sample from recovery to really get going. Ideally, you want those patients to have eight to 12 weeks recovered. It is really painstaking for others to wait and wait and wait,” Ringeisen said.
DARPA teams went first to Washington state, which was hit hard by COVID-19 early, to collect the blood samples. The first samples did not turn out strong but “we had antibody hits” that showed they could neutralize the virus, he said.
“We had to go back, find more patients with a higher immune response,” Ringeisen said. “Flash forward a month and now we have very good anti-bodies.”
The blood sample is taken from a person fully recovered from COVID-19. The sample is screened to find all the protective antibodies. Modeling and bioinformatics are used to identify the antibody that appears best to counter the pathogen, the genetic sequence is determined and then that code can be manufactured quickly, at scale, and used, he said.
Front-line individuals such as medical personnel, first responders, and vulnerable individuals, would be first to receive the protective antibodies. The goal is to have protective levels of the antibodies circulating within 6 to 24 hours as the body becomes the churner of the antibodies.
Ringeisen said he expects it to be ready sometime late summer.
It is not clear if it will help mitigate Kawasaki disease, another rare inflammatory condition, showing up in younger individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new work is in addition to the organs on a chip program, completed a few years ago, that has also been helpful in finding ways to offset COVID-19. The technology integrates 10 human organs-on-chips in an automated system to study how drugs work in the body, providing an alternative to testing drugs on humans or other animals.
DARPA also has the Epigenetic CHaracterization and Observation (ECHO) program, started in February 2018, that is working to develop a portable device that could identify – within 30 minutes —any pathogen an individual may have been exposed, potentially providing rapid diagnostics for individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
All of this builds from the Pandemic Preparedness Platform (P3) program, which DARPA started two years ago. Then, a pandemic threat was theoretical. It seemed like a prudent idea to develop a quick response to emerging infectious diseases. Researchers working under the program sought ways to confer instant, short-term, protection from a dangerous virus or bacteria.
“DARPA has a longstanding research thread to advance treatment, detection, diagnosis, prevention, and biosurveillance of diseases,” Dr. Kerri Dugan, deputy director DARPA Biological Technologies Office, said. “Now, in addition to our current efforts that are contributing to the COVID-19 fight, those previous investments are being leveraged to address this public health issue.”