Academia and the private sector must be in a collaborative relationship with the United States government to invest in the research and development of technologies that will prevent a future pandemic, experts said on Wednesday during a webinar hosted by the Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Security.
“If there’s one takeaway from the last year and a half, it’s that we can’t go forward in the future without all three participants playing a role,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), an honorary co-chairman of the bipartisan, bicameral Steering Committee, which is sponsored and managed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
During the May 26 webinar, entitled U.S. Leadership for a Pandemic-Free Future: Technologies to End Biological Threats, Burr joined several experts to explore how the federal government can prioritize investments in available and future technologies to prevent COVID-19 or something worse from happening.
Gary Disbrow, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is a component of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that BARDA played a critical role in America’s response to the pandemic.
“We accomplished this mission through public-private partnerships with pharma, biotech, government and academic product developers,” Disbrow said during the webinar. “These partnerships have led to FDA regulatory approvals, licensures or clearances for 59 products, including vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.”
In fact, early on during the pandemic, Disbrow said BARDA leveraged its flexible contract agreements with some of these partners to rapidly pivot to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to prevent, treat and detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused COVID-19. BARDA also established a COVID-19 federal market research portal just prior to the declaration of the public health emergency, said Disbrow, and to date has reviewed 4,400 submissions and posted over 630 CoronaWatch meetings with its industry partners.
“Since February 2020, BARDA has entered into or expanded 142 partnerships to develop and to support 81 products for COVID-19, including three vaccines, three therapeutics, and 22 diagnostic tests that have been granted emergency use authorizations by the FDA,” Disbrow said.
Sen. Burr also pointed out that such partnerships with BARDA also collaborated with it on responses to H1N1 in 2009, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016, Ebola again in 2018 through 2020, and now COVID-19. In fact, Disbrow said that four vaccines and one therapeutic in BARDA’s portfolio were developed using platform technologies in which BARDA had previously invested for Zika, Ebola and influenza.
“The time that was spent trying to create a tech architecture in case this [pandemic] happened allowed us to have a response that I think by all standards was historic,” Burr said. “Not only the recovery that we’ve gone through, but what we’ve learned through that process. I think this will begin to reshape how the government collaborates with the private sector and academia.”
Dr. Tara O’Toole, executive vice president and senior fellow at In-Q-Tel and a former undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, noted that federal R&D investments have been down since 2003 and an ecosystem of startup companies that began in the 1990s has picked up the slack.
“That’s where most innovation is happening today,” O’Toole said during the webinar, pointing out that many such startups are supported by venture capital firms that are only willing to take on some risk, leaving open opportunities for the federal government to support higher levels of investment in biotechnology.
O’Toole said tighter connections between these systems — private-sector components, universities, the government, the health biotech ecosystem — must be made to develop technologies that do away with vaccine needles and use a Band-Aid or nasal spray instead, for instance. Doing so also would eliminate the stress on America’s hospital system.
Disbrow said such “intentional investments in rapid response technologies were a critical component of BARDA’s pandemic preparedness posture.”
“We as a government have to continue to leverage the investments we’ve made during the COVID-19 response to make sure we are prepared for any future pandemic,” he said. “We need to prepare now for the next future pandemic and this includes developing prototype vaccines, and manufacturing them at a commercial standard.”
According to Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, pandemics are increasing. “There have been seven in the last century that have collectively caused 70 million deaths worldwide,” she said during the webinar. “The next one could occur within the next 10 years.”
Cicero added, “By investing in specific, known technology innovations, the United States can protect American lives while regaining its claim to international leadership in science and technology, innovation, public health, and national security.”
And that’s something that’s going to be a shared responsibility between the government, the private sector and academia, said Sen. Burr.
“I think academia is going to play an ever-increasing role in identifying those technologies that can really be the portal to something new,” he said. “I think what I’ve been most impressed with is how we’ve leveraged technology, like the development of diagnostic testing and efforts under way at a lot of university campuses today… that could potentially play a role in the next event that we go through.”
Another lesson learned by the current pandemic is understanding that “technology played an integral role in everything that we did and how do we take those technological advances and leverage those to other areas of health care as quickly as we possibly can,” said Burr. “Congress has a tendency to get bogged down and I hope this is not an area where we’re going to see things come to a screeching halt.”
And while Burr said that “reforms are a continual process,” the congressional role going forward is to work with federal agencies and make sure the nation never goes backwards from where it ends up. He said the nation needs a surveillance mechanism layered with technologies that allows it to work with its partners having more transparency, clarity and instant data.
“It’s not just about leveraging technology that enabled us to have a vaccine quicker, Burr said, “it’s everything that technology allows us to understand about what’s going to happen to us.”
Jacob Swett, advisor at Open Philanthropy Project, said that philanthropy should be part of the public government, industry and academia partnership concept, as well, and that “the government needs a comprehensive vision on how to handle this coordination.”