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IARPA Pivots to Fight Coronavirus

Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) programs may provide solutions to help counter the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two research programs at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly known as IARPA, are now undergoing evaluation to see if they may provide solutions to help counter the growing COVID-19 pandemic, IARPA director Catherine Marsh tells SIGNAL Magazine.

The Molecular Analyzer for Efficient Gas-phase Low-power INterrogation (MAEGLIN—pronounced Magellan) program has been developing sensors to detect harmful gaseous chemicals in the air. The goal is to detect weapons of mass destruction or chemical indicators of illicit activity, such as narcotics production. But now, the program is investigating how well its newly developed micro-gas chromatograph might work as a breath sensor to detect signs of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition associated with COVID-19.

“We pivoted that research, and we went to clinical trials with that a few weeks ago. The early results are really positive. It seems that for standoff detection, there’s a unique signature associated with COVID-19, and you can track the progress of the disease, for example whether it’s waxing or waning, if you will,” Marsh says.

In addition, the Functional Genomic and Computational Assessments of Threats (FUN GCAT—pronounced fun gee cat) program is showing some promise related to the fight against COVID-19. In order to better address biosecurity concerns, the program intends to develop next-generation computational and bioinformatics tools to improve DNA sequence screening and to augment biodefense capabilities through the characterization of threats.

The researchers developed unique computational methods to analyze DNA to answer three questions per sequence: What organisms does it come from, what functions does it have and how dangerous is it?

Those tools are demonstrating high predictive accuracy and a 200 times improvement in computational efficiency over state of the art, Marsh reports. “The Fun GCAT uncovers a variety of different cellular and molecular roles of DNA sequencing and uses that for experimental pipelines. One of those pipelines is testing virus genes for the ability to disrupt the immune system hard-wired within each of our cells. The functions that are coming out of that have been discovered to provide key insights to the threat of the novel COVID-19 virus,” she adds.

IARPA is also looking for other ways to help with the pandemic. In late May, the organization issued the COVID-19 Seedling Broad Agency Announcement (BAA), soliciting proposals for developing new tools and technologies that provide rapid capabilities against virus, as well as enhanced warning and response capacity for future similar events. The solicitation focuses on technologies that can support: detection and sensing; supply chain management and integrity; geo-spatio-temporal monitoring and mapping with privacy protection; information reliability and collaboration tools; and modeling, simulation and predictive analytics.

“Technology solutions for COVID-19 will require creative, multidisciplinary methods, paradigm-changing thinking, and transformative approaches,” Catherine Cotell, IARPA deputy director for research, says in a press release. “Our goal is to advance ground-breaking technologies that will help the intelligence community and the country prepare for and recover from pandemic events.”

Proposals for the BAA are starting to arrive, and IARPA is gearing up for source selection, Marsh reports. “We have a number of proposals that are being reviewed right now as we’re speaking, and we anticipate multiple awards against that.”

A seedling is different from a traditional program in that it is intended to be short-lived, Marsh explains. The effort includes two phases. Solutions that underperform in the first phase will not move on to the second. “Those are very high-risk ideas that are going to be a year or less. The whole point there is that if there is something there, it often turns into a new research program that we will invest in.”