How DARPA seeded the ground for a rapid COVID-19 cure

Former Director of DARPA, Regina Dugan, joined Yahoo Finance Live to discuss this secretive government agency behind COVID-19 vaccines.

Video Transcript


SEANA SMITH: As Pfizer's vaccine starts to get distributed this week, and also as we prepare for Moderna potentially being next in line, we want to talk about-- or take a look, I should say, at the role that a US defense agency played in preparing the US to produce a vaccine very quickly. And for that, we want to bring in Regina Dugan. She's the former head of DARPA. And we also have our very own reporter Anjalee Khemlani joining the conversation.

Regina, let me just start with the fact that-- I guess explain to us how DARPA's investments over the last several years, going back even more than a decade or so, have helped accelerate the pace that we have seen for a COVID vaccine and have gotten us to this point that we've been able to get to so quickly.

REGINA DUGAN: Sure. Well, you should know that DARPA was formed after Sputnik in 1958 with the goal of preventing and creating strategic surprise. So big questions about risks and vulnerabilities and new capabilities that we might create were routine at DARPA.

And what I remember was a pivotal moment in 2010. So we were contemplating new programs, and a program manager by the name of Dan Wattendorf asked too big what ifs. He said, what if we have a global pandemic and it's a novel pathogen? That will be catastrophic. We can't wait the normal 3 to 10 years for a vaccine. And what if instead we could use mRNA to create a vaccine in days and weeks instead of the normal year-long timelines, 3 to 10 years?

So what's important is that at that time DNA vaccines had been tried. They made protein, but they didn't produce enough. They lacked potency, so there wasn't a strong immune response. And Dan argued that mRNA could be different.

And there were a lot of critics at the time. They argued that there was no evidence it would work, and Dan argued there was no evidence that it wouldn't work. And if it did, someday it would matter, and that day has come.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Regina, I know that one of the things that's really interesting about this is that the mRNA technology is getting its time in the limelight right now. We have seen the Pfizer rollout. We've also seen some of the concerns about, you know, whether or not-- the myth about whether or not it can alter your DNA, but then also some of the side effects. And so I wonder, you know, based on what you're seeing and based on your understanding of the technology, you know, is this something we can expect? Is it normal to kind of go through this process of side effects, et cetera, with the vaccine?

REGINA DUGAN: I think that's a normal progression in the investigation of safety for vaccines. Now remember, our charge was to create the possibility, and I think we need to understand how remarkable an achievement this is. We went from virus sequence to first dosing in humans in 63 days. It's unprecedented.

Now, we still have the hard work to do to determine efficacy and to understand distribution and all of those things, but the first step is to have a vaccine candidate that creates an immune response and offers protection.

Now, my sense is that this will be one of the most important scientific achievements of our generation and certainly in the top-five contributions for DARPA, which was also responsible for the early investments in the internet and GPS.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. Regina, when we're talking about, you know, health care right now and the speed at which this was done, we know that this administration specifically focused a lot on public-private partnerships dealing with not just the health-care companies but also the tech companies for the rollout of software that will track some of these adverse events and the safety monitoring. You have been part of that world before, and I just wonder what is your sense of the ability for big tech to really, you know, walk into this health-care space that has been kind of technologically slow but also is so complex?

REGINA DUGAN: Well, look, I firmly believe in public-private partnerships. And, in fact, when we made the investment in Moderna at DARPA, they were three people. And these early investments are important, and now we see what's happened with the investment of private capital.

We now also have to consider what other established tech companies might bring to the table in terms of their reach, in terms of their scale. These are very important considerations.

But I think central to the question is also what do we need by way of new breakthroughs? How do we ask the new "what if?" questions for public health and human health. And, in fact, it's the reason I accepted the CEO role at Welcome Leap, which was formed by the Wellcome Trust with an initial funding of $300 million and a specific mandate. And that is to ask the next "what if?" questions, to create the next round of breakthroughs for human health. We need to do those things at scale, and we need to do them in partnership.

JEN ROGERS: Regina, I love reading these stories because, to me, this is like-- it's like "Mission Impossible." It's kind of like what I thought was going to be happening if we were ever hit by a pandemic. And then it didn't exactly go by the movie script, and a lot of that blame has been laid at the Trump administration, whether or not it's what happened with the CDC or following pandemic handbook. So the fact that this-- what you're talking about, this actually worked with DARPA. So are those "what if?" questions still being asked, because there's a lot of concern about, you know, the deep state and what's been able to be taken down and what survived the last four years. Are you confident that the government and DARPA are still asking those questions and going to come up with the solutions for the next time this happens?

REGINA DUGAN: Well, I think DARPA is in steady state, as I understand it, and DARPA has historically had about 0.5% of the DOD budget. It's an amazing organization with respect to the leverage it offers-- small investment but right at these pivotal places where we need the kind of risk-tolerant investments.

But in health we also see private organizations like Wellcome Trust, like the Gates Foundation, others stepping up and beginning to ask those kinds of "what if?" questions as well. We definitely need to do that at scale.

And I think it's clear human health, global health is going to require that of us. It is not only a moral investment. It is also an economic investment, as we're seeing in this current pandemic.

SEANA SMITH: Regina Dugan, great to have you on the show, former head of DARPA. And, of course, Anjalee Khemlani, always great to have you part of these conversations. Regina, thanks so much. We'll talk to you again, hopefully once again soon.