Health, Defense Agencies Should Cooperate to Beat COVID-19

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The U.S. has been trying to contain COVID-19 through testing and social distancing. Now it’s time to kill it.

What’s needed is intragovernmental cooperation, something that, sadly, is rare in the nation’s capital. In this case, Congress and the Trump Administration should empower agencies that don’t traditionally work closely together to join forces: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the Department of Defense. The FDA knows the enemy and DARPA has the logistical know-how to strike quickly.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the FDA has been working overtime to develop effective therapies to treat it. The agency has approved more than 60 Investigational New Drug Applications and over 1,600 Expanded Use authorizations. These include promising treatments such as antivirals, antibodies and novel vaccines. And its work won’t stop there. Following approval or use of therapies approved for other diseases, the FDA will then be assisted in the acquisition, aggregation and analysis of “real world data” by the COVID19 Evidence Accelerator – a Reagan Udall Foundation initiative in collaboration with Friends of Cancer Research Foundation. These capabilities create an unequalled wealth of intelligence regarding vulnerabilities of the virus.

In other words, the FDA knows what can be done. DARPA, on the other hand, can ensure that it gets done and fast.

For more than six decades, DARPA has invested in breakthrough technologies for the benefit of our national security. While not widely known, DARPA is the federal agency that is best able to marshal a goal-directed, milestone driven, accountable approach to fighting the pandemic. Its expertise has delivered everything from planes to plasma during wartimes past. It can do so again against today’s invisible enemy. In fact, investments DARPA made more than a decade ago in vaccine production, human testing, battlefield ventilators and pharmaceutical manufacturing are paying dividends now.

DARPA is driven by accomplishing a mission. In contrast to other agencies, DARPA-funded scientists who do not meet expectations are removed and replaced by other scientists. This enables the “doers” to move rapidly and relentlessly toward completing any mission. That is exactly what is needed to solve the COVID-19 crisis. 

Congress has already expanded DARPA’s authority during the coronavirus crisis. For example, DARPA is funding the creation of a therapeutic “shield” to mass produce protective antibodies. It is also ramping up innovative DNA and RNA vaccine development strategies.

FDA and DARPA would not be alone in the fight but would complement the recently announced public-private partnership called ACTIV (Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines). ACTIV, which includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH), brings together several agencies, the research community and industry to speed research and share data about the virus.

The NIH/ACTIV initiative has a broad mandate. The FDA/ DARPA initiative, in contrast, would be more selective, focusing on approving and funding those few efforts that have the highest likelihood of making an early impact. The FDA/DARPA partnership could guide both researchers and industry experts as they navigate regulatory requirements for therapies and monitor their results. 

COVID-19 is an elusive, unfamiliar and unpredictable enemy for which there is no proven, effective cure. For now, we can only limit its spread. Authorizing and funding an FDA/DARPA partnership will vastly strengthen America’s attack on the virus. It also will enhance our ability to rapidly identify, implement and monitor what we hope will be effective interventions.

This kind of collaboration is proven and effective. It is the best way to win this war now. 

Andrew C. von Eschenbach, MD, is president of Samaritan Health Initiatives and a former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Geoffrey Ling, MD, PhD Colonel (ret.) is a former founding director of the Biological Technologies Office of DARPA and professor of Neurology and Neuro Critical Care at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

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