Viruses are spreading faster than ever — it took the Swine Flu less than a month to infect over 1,800 people in 72 countries. No wonder the Pentagon is looking to turbocharge the response to pathogens, stopping the bugs before they even start.
Darpa’s soliciting proposals for a four-step program to stop bio-threats before they spread, and eventually prevent infection entirely. Timeline: Seven days.
Infectious microorganisms are on the rise, and it’s not just terrorist threats we should be wary of. Sure, Darpa’s worried about bio-sabotage. Then there’s the potential loss of closely-guarded pathogens, like what happened at Fort Detrick, the Army’s main biodefense lab, in April. But much of the new risk comes down to man vs. nature:
Examples of factors implicated in the increase in new, emerging and re-emerging pathogens include: increased animal-human interface; increased population densities and co-location of vulnerable species with pathogen reservoirs; climate change, particularly affecting migration and spread of vectors; and narrowing of genetic diversity among food animal stocks.
Right now, influenza management starts with quarantine. Then, scientists try to identify the pathogen and develop and distribute a vaccine. But Darpa warns of potential 14-year lag times to subdue especially potent strains. That hasn’t happened yet, but the military is worried it could, “in cases where the pathogen is unknown or difficult to characterize.”
Darpa hopes to prevent primary infection altogether. And they’re not talking Purell kiosks at every airport. Darpa wants “biomedical intervention” that can immediately immunize at-risk personnel or quickly kill the virus. If it’s too late for that, phase two – “sustaining survival” – would interfere with viral pathways or use “pathogen competitive microorganisms” to keep an infected person alive.
Phase three is where things get weird.