When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space in 1957, the United States was taken by surprise. The U.S. government and scientists vowed to never be blindsided again, a determination that meant billions of dollars flowed to Silicon Valley and other tech centers, resulting in innovations Including the silicon chip and eventually the Internet and GPS.
Fast forward to 2020. As COVID-19 spread across the world, scientists moved with the same urgency, developing vaccines in record times.
“I believe that this is our Sputnik moment,” said Regina Dugan, former director of the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, during a Jan. 13 forum on COVID-19 preparedness. “Sputnik ignited the space age. And I believe the coronavirus can inspire a health age.”
Dugan was among the health and social experts across the world who gathered virtually Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss COVID-19 preparedness and analyze the world’s response in a virtual panel hosted by Schmidt Futures. She spoke with Dr. Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and now White House Science Advisor; Dr. Matthew Hepburn, the vaccine development lead for Operation Warp Speed; and Manu Prakash, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University.
The group discussed how developing moonshot innovations now could change humanity’s response to global crises in the future. They predicted speedy innovations seen during this pandemic could spark decades of health advancements.
“I think COVID has illustrated what might be possible if perhaps we’re a little less patient,” Dugan said. “And in health, particularly, going slow is a painful kind of slowness. It’s the kind of slowness that’s measured in lives.”
Typically it takes scientists three to 10 years to develop a vaccine, Dugan said. But when Moderna was developing its vaccine, it went from virus sequence to first dosing humans in 63 days, Dugan said. “This is a remarkable achievement,” Dugan said. “Frankly, it’s stunning.”
Speed could be the new norm, Dugan said. She posed an idea: “What if we could shorten the trial safely to three months, using state of the art systems that replicate human organs and the immune system?” Shortening trials by even a month could save lives and money, she said.
“This is central to a never again, pandemic strategy, but also to the breakthroughs we need in cancer and diabetes and mental health,” Dugan said.
DARPA currently operates on a $3.5 billion budget and manages to create breakthroughs, including the basis for the mRNA vaccine used to create the COVID-19 vaccines released last month, Dugan said. The budget isn’t the important part, but rather how the money is spent.
Beyond tangible discoveries, there’s opportunity in the process: the scaling, manufacturing and cutting down time side of new innovations, Hepburn responded. “Are there ways to innovate so that you can vaccinate hundreds or even millions of people in record time?” he asked. “Let’s solve these problems.”
Prakash and his team at Stanford University have been working to develop recyclable masks that are just as effective as n95s and a way to produce them in hospitals, health care facilities or elsewhere where they were needed. They’ve also been working on a ventilator that can be rapidly manufactured.
“This is not the last respiratory disease that’s going to be around,” he said.
These projects, and the others his team is working on, were designed with affordability and practicality in mind. Team members also worked virtually and in locations, like India, Kenya and Nepal to ensure that the users were at the center of the design.
Prakash said during the forum that he hoped the technologies his teams are creating will not only help in future pandemics, but also help to fight all types of diseases around the world. “I’m very proud and excited,” he said.
The health age should inspire young engineers “in every corner of the world,” Prakash said, pointing out that although he teaches at Stanford, you don’t have to attend an elite school to make meaningful innovations.
Dugan reflected Prakash’s point, calling for people to continue the momentum.
“We should not squander this moment,” Dugan said. “We can use this Sputnik moment to spark one of the greatest periods of advancement in science and medical history, just like we did in the space age.”