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Coronavirus Challenges Pandemic Preparedness Program


Making a drug or vaccine to fight a virus that's completely new to science is a tall order, especially when you're trying to do it in record time. And the Defense Department is trying to speed up that effort. But as NPR's Joe Palca reports, the pandemic preparedness program still has a ways to go.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: In 2018, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - also known as DARPA - started the pandemic preparedness program, or P3. The idea was to come up with medical tools to fight off any dangerous new virus or bacterium and to do it fast.

AMY JENKINS: The original goal of the P3 program, as it stood at its onset - and we're about halfway through, over halfway through now - was to do this in 60 days.

PALCA: Amy Jenkins runs the program. It's focused on building a drug based on antibodies that our bodies make when infected by an invading organism. The coronavirus provided a real-world test of the scheme, and it kind of worked.

JENKINS: AstraZeneca, one of our funded performers, has begun their phase one safety study of their COVID antibodies that they discovered under our program.

PALCA: Eli Lilly also has an antibody-based therapy being tested in patients. The problem is it's not clear how well these therapies will actually work. And it took longer than 60 days - quite a bit longer - more like 150 days in the case of the AstraZeneca product. Jenkins says that's OK. Remember, she says, the program isn't finished.

JENKINS: And I'm encouraged because, of course, this is a process that just even half a decade ago would have taken many years.

PALCA: That speed-up isn't entirely due to DARPA. Tony Fauci is a member of the COVID-19 task force and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says medical science in general is moving at a rapid clip.

ANTHONY FAUCI: When you talk about technologies that have evolved over the last several years - technologies with vaccines, technologies with monoclonal antibodies - are really an order of magnitude different than they were not so long ago.

PALCA: Still, James Crowe thinks DARPA's programs have made a difference. He's director at the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center. He received DARPA funds to help make one of the new COVID-19 therapies. He says when DARPA got into the game, the rapid pace of drug and vaccine development we're seeing today still seemed a ways off.

JAMES CROWE: I sort of think of it like the four-minute mile. When people were aspiring to run a four-minute mile, it just seemed impossible. And once one person did it, within a year or so, multiple people did it.

PALCA: Crowe says DARPA is still looking for ways to speed things up. The agency has its eye on a technology to do just that by skipping a traditional manufacturing step. Normally, if you find an antibody that helps defend against an invading virus, you make those antibodies in giant bioreactors in a commercial laboratory. But Jesse Erasmus of the University of Washington says, what if you started with the genetic instructions for making that antibody, the DNA or the RNA?

JESSE ERASMUS: It would be nice if you could just have an RNA that can be manufactured. And then someone could just take a jab in the muscle, and then your muscle could produce that antibody, and you could reach protective levels.

PALCA: The body then becomes its own drug-manufacturing plant. Erasmus says the RNA approach is not ready for prime time. Right now you have to deliver more RNA than you can inject into an arm muscle.

ERASMUS: We need something that can be inhaled or administered super-easily, and that's still a challenge at the moment.

PALCA: Another challenge that may seem almost impossible today but also may be ready before too long.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.