December 31, 2019 is a day that will live in infamy. On this day, a pneumonia of unknown origin in the Hubei province of China was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). We did not know it then, but this would be the day that the world would change. At the time of writing this article, there have been more than 4 million confirmed cases and nearly 300,000 confirmed deaths worldwide.
This global enemy, which we have learned to call COVID-19, has ravaged lives, regardless of age, creed or socioeconomic status. It has caused economic turmoil and has disrupted the lives of almost every human across the globe.
The impact that an entity approximately 120 nanometers in diameter — approximately 1/100th the diameter of a human hair — can have on the world is remarkable. But as indelible a mark as the virus has had, so too has been the call to arms by the scientific community. Every generation tends to be called to rise to a great challenge, and the response of this generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians will shape the future of humanity and health more than SARS-CoV-2 itself.
As mentioned in a recent article on Forbes, the mobilization of biotechnology is similar to the allies storming the beaches on D-Day. Just like that fateful day, the attack on coronavirus is multipronged. There are new-generation vaccine methods, such as synthetic peptide-based vaccines and nucleic acid-based vaccines, that are genetically engineered. Retrovirals, diabetic medications, immunologic drugs, antibiotics and even anticoagulants have all been proposed to combat the pandemic. By the last count, over 250 medications are being evaluated at various stages.
Before the Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency’s (DARPA) support of this work in 2011, the concept of engineering vaccines into DNA strands was at the edge of science. This allows the immune system to generate proteins directly. Prior to this, conventional vaccines were created by inducing an immune response by introducing antigens into the body. Now, many of the vaccines that are being evaluated are using the more novel approach, including Moderna’s vaccine, the first to enter phase one human trials, and Inovio’s vaccine, scheduled to enter trials this summer.
But newer, even more audacious biotechnological solutions are currently underway by DARPA in a project they’re calling COVID-19 “Shield,” as part of the Pandemic Protection Platform. The cutting-edge concept is to harvest B cells from survivors of the disease and replicate and mass produce them via genetic engineering. This concept, if successful, could potentially mitigate any future potential pandemic in a matter of weeks and allow time for a vaccine to be developed while maintaining a flat infection curve.
However, DARPA is not the only group actively seeking solutions. There are myriad others, including the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is seeking both low and high technology readiness level (TRL) solutions through a broad agency announcement (BAA). This includes a large vaccine contract with J&J worth over $1 billion and fast-tracking an IL-6 inhibitor by Actemra that could mitigate the lung manifestations of COVID-19.
This joins several other immune-mediated drug therapies to attempt to ameliorate the suspect cytokine storm cascade that occurs in more severe cases. BARDA is also reviewing advances from the pinnacle of bioengineering by exploring the use of extremophiles for drug therapies.
Biologic countermeasures are, however, not the only weapons being developed in this new viral war. Artificial intelligence (AI) is also playing a role to combat the novel coronavirus. AI is helping to mitigate the spread of disease, find therapies and aid in treatment strategies. BlueDot was the first to use its AI application to identify a novel pneumonia outbreak in China.
Then there is the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), a multi-institutional initiative that includes The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Allen Institute for AI, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), Microsoft, and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The goal of this initiative is to create new natural language processing and machine learning algorithms to scour scientific and medical literature to help researchers prioritize potential therapies to evaluate for further study. AI is also being used to automate screening at checkpoints by evaluating temperature via thermal cameras, as well as modulations in sweat and skin discoloration. What’s more, AI-powered robots have even been used to monitor and treat patients. In Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic, an entire field hospital was transitioned into a “smart hospital” fully staffed by AI robotics.
Any time of great challenge is a time of great change. The waves of technological innovation that are occurring now will echo throughout eternity. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are experiencing a call to mobilization that will forever alter the fabric of discovery in the fields of bioengineering, biomimicry and artificial intelligence. The promise of tomorrow will be perpetuated by the pangs of today. It is the symbiosis of all these fields that will power future innovations.
December 31, 2019 is a day that will always be remembered. Currently, the day is known as the beginning of a disruption to our lives that few — if any — have ever experienced, but none shall ever forget. However, as time passes and life begins anew, I believe it will be remembered for a different reason. It will be remembered as the day science and technology went to war. A day in which humanity united to unleash the full capacity of scientific innovation on an enemy that was indiscriminate to race, religion or creed. And on that fateful day, in our darkest hour, science shined brightest. And in science we trust.