We need a state agency to spur breakthrough research

Context: Quick development of COVID vaccines was possible due to mRNA technology and this critical technology could only be developed due to funding given by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). We need such agencies all around the world. 

Rapid development of vaccines 

  • Within 48 hours of the genetic sequence of the covid virus being published by Chinese scientists, Moderna had developed a recipe for a vaccine by deploying a new technology it had been using to develop a Zika vaccine.  
  • BioNTech was able to produce a working recipe even sooner—in a matter of hours.  
  • By the end of February, both companies had batches of viable vaccines ready for clinical trials.  

Never in the history of humanity had we moved so rapidly from the identification of a disease to its prevention. 

Why were we able to develop the vaccines so quickly? 
  • Advances in genetic technology made it possible for Chinese scientists to publish the genetic sequence of the virus in a matter of weeks, giving researchers a head-start in understanding how it worked inside the human body.  
  • Previous work done on SARS and MERS: Due to the work that had already been done to understand the genetic make-up of other coronaviruses—SARS and MERS—scientists were able to quickly identify the specific genetic sequence that coded its distinctive spike protein.  
  • mRNA technology: The most significant reason we were able to produce vaccines so soon was a new experimental technology (mRNA technology) that allowed us to take all we knew about the virus and use it to get the human body to engineer its own defenses. 
What is mRNA? 

Messenger RNA (or mRNA) refers to single-strand RNA molecules that carry instructions from our DNA to cells.  

  • mRNA tells them what proteins they should produce and when.  
  • For a while now, scientists have been able to design mRNA, introduce them into living cells, and get them to make proteins on demand.  
  • Numerous applications: Getting the body to produce proteins to supplement natural deficiencies, improve blood flow, or even reverse the effects of life-threatening diseases like multiple sclerosis. 
How can we use mRNA technology to combat disease? 

Perhaps the most ingenious use of this technology is in combating disease.  

  • If mRNA can instruct the body to produce proteins that mimic the shape of an invading virus (the spike protein in COVID’s case), we can train our immune system in advance to identify dangers and create antibody defences for when a real virus comes along. 
What is the role played by DARPA in all this? 

The mRNA technology is not new. Research in the field had been going on for at least two decades. But there were many occasions when funding ran out. At that point, a $25 million grant from the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) kept the research work going.  

Why we need state agencies/state capital, like DARPA in every country? 

Big scientific breakthroughs especially in experimental technologies need state agencies to step in because of 

  • a long gestation periods. 
  • no definitive path towards the outcome  

Private capital rarely supports this sort of research. 

Major contributions of DARPA 

DARAPA’s investment over the years has resulted in some truly revolutionary technologies as  

  • the internet 
  • autonomous vehicles 
  • GPS (Global Positioning Systems) 
  • mRNA vaccines 

So, what will it take to set up a DARPA in India? 

There are three unique challenges that need to be overcome. 

  • Space to make mistakes: First, we need to make sure that we give this agency the space to make mistakes. Scientists need to be able to enquire an idea without having to justify why—even if those lines of investigation end up being futile.  
  • They need to be able to try out fantastic ideas in the hope that one in a hundred—or even a thousand—will yield an elusive breakthrough.  
  • Political will: Then we will also need to muster up the political will to see this through. Moonshot projects, almost by definition, are incapable of yielding results on a timescale that is of any use—or relevance—to a politician.  
  • We need to secure political commitment beyond the time horizon within which most politicians are accustomed to working. 
  • Moonshot project: It is an exploratory and ground-breaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and also, perhaps, without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits. 
  •  A ready market: Finally, we need to build methods to take innovations to market. For DARPA, this goal has been served by the US department of defense that gladly accepts any invention it comes up with and deploys it in the field.  
  • This not only gives inventors a way out of the laboratory into the real world, it also surfaces technologies that could have broader commercial appeal and allows them to be tested before being released to the wider world. 

In our current context, these challenges might seem particularly insurmountable. But we must remember that India’s space programme has faced all these challenges and yet managed to become the unmitigated success that it is. If we, did it once, we can do it again. 

Terms to know 

  • mRNA technology 
  • DARPA 


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