By William Beaver
The race to create a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 has shown the world the potential of “platform technologies”, which are defined by their ability to rapidly discover and manufacture medical countermeasures against a wide variety of biological threats, especially novel ones.
Department of Defense (DoD) investments in platform technologies have seen growing U.S. government attention over the last decade. However, they still hold vastly under-explored promise in terms of both addressing future deliberate biological threats, and deterring them – by reducing the presumed effectiveness of biological weapons and, consequently, incentives for their development and use.
The potential of platform technologies has become clear during the current pandemic. The average vaccine takes over ten years to develop and be distributed. With new platform technologies, this timeline has been reduced by a factor of ten during the COVID-19 crisis. The speed of development has been incredible. Moderna, which favors mRNA-based platform technology, created a vaccine within four days of receiving details of the genetic makeup of SARS-CoV-2. Moderna honed its approach with a vaccine for avian influenza in 2015 with support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It continued refining its methods during work on six other vaccines, including one against Zika. Moderna’s mRNA vaccine platform embodies the potential of this technology against biothreats: a rapid means of creating medical countermeasures against many pathogens.
The Defense Department’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP), an umbrella organization coordinating military research and development (R&D) and procurement of biological and chemical threat defenses, is funding development of this technology. In 2006, under the CBDP, the Transformational Medical Technology Initiative was created to start shifting the Pentagon away from the slow, inflexible and expensive strategy of tailoring medical countermeasures to specific, identified biothreats, often referred to as a one-bug, one-drug approach. The initiative has had some success in moving the DoD towards a faster, more flexible, and more cost-effective response to reducing biothreats. A significant part of the effort was devoted to platform technologies.
At CBDP, support for platform-based approaches has waxed and waned over time. In the later years of the George W. Bush administration there was less of an impetus to focus on biological weapons and emerging threats. Interest grew because of the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009. More recently, based on my preliminary analysis of CBDP budgets over the last four years, funding for platform technologies appears to be consistently on the rise. This trend is encouraging—in particular because CBDP has been struck by declining budgets, including a decrease this year during the most significant bio incident in our lifetimes. Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, concerned about CBDP funding levels, cosponsored a successful amendment to the FY21 Defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to require a report on the effect the reduction will have on national security.
As the Biden administration considers CBDP funding levels in budget discussions and in talks around possible COVID-19 supplemental appropriations, increased funding for R&D in platform technologies should be seriously weighed as a means to both reinvigorate DoD spending on biological threat defenses and also to fully capture the potential of platform technologies to reduce bioweapons risks. Out of the many approaches, mRNA vaccine platforms such as those used by Moderna are clearly promising.
mRNA vaccines have performed particularly well in the vaccine race, which included a variety of different platform-based approaches, e.g. DNA, recombinant protein expression, self-amplifying RNA and viral vectors. mRNA’s superior performance occurred despite the fact that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, it received less funding than virally vectored and DNA-based approaches, which had previously been viewed as of the highest potential.The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), for example, has favored DNA and virally vectored vaccines over mRNA vaccines. At the same time, mRNA vaccine platforms have low dual-use risks in comparison with virally vectored vaccines, i.e. those that use viruses as the delivery mechanism.The dual-use risk arises because virally vectored vaccines require expertise, methods and technology similar to what is needed to create engineered viruses.1
States or other actors, whether now or in the coming decades, are highly likely to seek to circumvent defenses against bioweapons such as stockpiled vaccines or targeted medical countermeasures such as antivirals. This is why the approach of creating vaccines and medical countermeasures targeted toward a list of identified bioweapons threats such as botulinum or plague may not be effective against more sophisticated biological threats.
Platform approaches are much more difficult to engineer around since by their very nature they are meant to be able to be a rapid response to a wide variety of pathogens. The DoD’s CBDP investments here are therefore more than worthwhile. These investments will significantly improve deterrence against countries considering the development or use of bioweapons.
1“Sandbrink JB, Koblentz GD. “Biosecurity risks associated with vaccine platform technologies”. Manuscript in preparation.”