DARPA to focus on stopping animal-borne deadly viruses before they reach humans

DARPA to focus on stopping animal-borne deadly viruses before they reach humans

DARPA researchers supporting the PREEMPT program will model viral evolution in animal populations, quantify the probability of human pathogen emergence, and pursue proof-of-concept interventions to prevent viral spread to humans. (DARPA illustration)

WASHINGTON — DARPA is continuing its renewed emphasis on combating infections and viral diseases before they can downgrade troops, this time by focusing on halting diseases that travel from animals to humans.

Five teams of researchers will model how viruses and infections might originate within animal populations and then migrate to humans, DARPA said in a news release. The program, called PREventing EMerging Pathogenic Threats (PREEMPT), was announced in January 2018 but the research teams were just chosen last week.

“DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office develops capabilities that embrace the unique properties of biology—adaptation, replication, complexity—and applies those features to revolutionize how the United States defends the homeland and prepares and protects its Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines,” Jared Adams, DARPA’s chief of communications, told TMN.

“BTO is helping the Department of Defense to counter novel forms of bioterrorism, deploy innovative biological countermeasures to protect U.S. forces, and accelerate warfighter readiness and overmatch to confront adversary threats,” he said.

DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The research teams will have three and one-half years to provide results to “identify opportunities to contain viruses before they ever endanger humans,” DARPA said in the release.

The threat is real and appears to be increasing over recent years, DARPA said.

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases reported globally are zoonoses,” such as Ebola, that primarily are animal diseases and then transform and become able to infect humans, DARPA said.

“Zoonotic diseases are responsible for millions of human deaths every year, and the scope of the challenge is increasing due to the densification of livestock production, human encroachment into natural spaces, and upward trends in globalization, temperature, and population,” DARPA said.

Troops are especially vulnerable since they often are deployed “in countries that are ‘hot spots’ for emerging viruses yet lack robust public health infrastructure,” DARPA said.

“One of the chief limitations of how infectious disease modeling is currently conducted is that it forecasts the trajectory of an outbreak only after it is underway in people. The best that data can do is inform a public health response, which places the United States in a reactive mode,” Brad Ringeisen, program manger for PREEMPT, said in the news release.

“We require proactive options to keep our troops and the homeland safe from emerging infectious disease threats,” he said.

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