The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) past vaccine work has aided the search for a COVID-19 vaccine, Peter Highnam, DARPA’s acting director, told the Defense Writers Group in a virtual discussion on July 30.
“The investments DARPA made 10 to 15 years ago are the ones that are now at the forefront providing interventions, treatments, diagnostics, and other ways we’re going to get out of this mess,” he said.
“Looking at the vaccines, DARPA does not have any vaccine programs, but we did under a program called ADEPT (Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics) around 2013,” Highnam said. “It was how do you respond to a new pathogen quickly? How do you produce that vaccine? What would it need to look like? How do you wrap it up quickly in terms of production?”
The “vaccines that we see today being discussed certainly have strong roots in that work,” he said. Before becoming acting DARPA director in January after the resignation of Steven Walker, Highnam served for two years as deputy DARPA director and before that as director of research at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) for two and a half years.
Highnam also has a background in public health research and served from 2003 to 2009 at the Department of Health and Human Services, including nearly three years as as senior adviser to the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), “where he produced analyses in support of public health decision-making related to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events, as well as naturally occurring disease,” according to his DARPA bio.
DARPA also had a Rapid Vaccine Assessment (RVA) program that ended in 2017 to help companies develop vaccines using artificial immune system technology.
The French Sanofi Pasteur‘s [SNY] Florida-based VaxDesign bio-technology firm developed the Modular IMmune In vitro Construct (MIMIC®) technology to accelerate vaccine development under DARPA’s RVA program.
In addition, the ongoing DARPA Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) is to help provide limited pathogen immunity to military forces.
“We’ve been in this work since 2012-2013,” Highnam said. “How do you find antibodies really quickly? How do you find the most efficacious ones..and what’s the RNA or DNA recipe to produce those antibodies that we can then give to people to generate antibodies on their own?”
The July 30 discussion touched on other topics as well, including DARPA’s cybersecurity efforts.
The latter includes “massive configuration security” to ensure the seamless operation on platforms of cybersecurity products from different vendors. “Configuration security is a program I like a lot,” Highnam said. “It’s certainly a clear win for the [Defense] Department, and we have a lot of interested transition partners.”
DARPA recently announced its first bug bounty program, which will task ethical hackers with stress-testing novel secure hardware architectures and designs currently going through the organization’s System Security Integration Through Hardware and Firmware (SSITH) program.
DARPA is partnering with the Defense Digital Service and software security firm Synack on the Finding Exploits to Thwart Tampering (FETT) Bug Bounty program, which will run from July through September. The program will include 1,500 participants from Synack’s ethical hacker community trying to crack three hardware designs.
Highnam also noted DARPA’s pioneering work in what would become artificial intelligence–work dating back to the 1960s. DARPA announced a $2 billion investment in an AI Next program in September, 2018 over five years, and “well over” one-third of DARPA programs use AI, Highnam said.
The safety and “robustness” of AI-enabled autonomous systems is a concern for DARPA and other potential military and commercial users of AI, however.
Trusting lives to autonomous systems? “Today, I wouldn’t do it,” Highnam said.