One step ahead of the future

If a missile came hurtling at the United States or Canada, an early-warning system is ready to detect it as early as possible. A missile could threaten a whole city. But what if a virus threatened the same city, perhaps carried by migratory bird, or an airplane passenger? The virus might have a better chance ...

Joe Raedle/GETTY IMAGES
Joe Raedle/GETTY IMAGES
Joe Raedle/GETTY IMAGES

If a missile came hurtling at the United States or Canada, an early-warning system is ready to detect it as early as possible. A missile could threaten a whole city. But what if a virus threatened the same city, perhaps carried by migratory bird, or an airplane passenger?

The virus might have a better chance of arriving undetected. Look no further than last year’s swine flu pandemic for an example of how a novel pathogen spread rapidly around the world. The virus was a unique combination of genes which had apparently mixed in pigs somewhere in Mexico.

When a dangerous new virus strikes, the public health system reacts with vaccines or therapeutic drugs. But these measures usually begin only after people start to get sick, and can take months or years to create. 

If a missile came hurtling at the United States or Canada, an early-warning system is ready to detect it as early as possible. A missile could threaten a whole city. But what if a virus threatened the same city, perhaps carried by migratory bird, or an airplane passenger?

The virus might have a better chance of arriving undetected. Look no further than last year’s swine flu pandemic for an example of how a novel pathogen spread rapidly around the world. The virus was a unique combination of genes which had apparently mixed in pigs somewhere in Mexico.

When a dangerous new virus strikes, the public health system reacts with vaccines or therapeutic drugs. But these measures usually begin only after people start to get sick, and can take months or years to create. 

What if there was a way to predict how a virus is going to evolve? What if technology could help peer into the future and see the next steps in mutation? What if there was a missile warning system for incoming viral threats?

Impossible? Perhaps. But in the next few years, pay attention to the something called Prophecy.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has just published broad plans for an ambitious, three-year effort which seeks to "achieve the ability to successfully predict the natural evolution of any virus." The project, called Prophecy, hopes to leverage existing knowledge about viral genomes — the genetic code — to figure out which direction viruses are evolving. Some viruses like influenza are relatively simple in their genetic structure, but they evolve at hyper-speed, leading to new strains that can evade detection or are resistant to existing drug therapies. Prophecy will attempt to spot the direction of change before it happens. Such a warning could pay huge dividends in preparing for, or even avoiding, a pandemic.

The Prophecy program seeks “to transform today’s vaccine and drug development enterprise from observational and reactive to predictive and preemptive.”

One goal of Prophecy is to develop a “platform” that can accurately reproduce and analyze the genetic events in a virus — how it evolves in response to certain pressures. Another goal is to develop an algorithm capable of predicting these genetic events. It is a tall order, but today’s technology can crunch through the genetic code of a virus relatively quickly. The changes in a genome may be explored by examining shifts or trends in a large cache of data. Computers can sift and analyze mountains of that data. The results might point to the way a virus is mutating, and, if caught early enough, lead to a response that would save lives.

Such futuristic goals are the trademark of DARPA, which was established by President Eisenhower after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. The agency undertakes high-risk research aimed at cutting-edge solutions to problems. While its primary mission is for the military, the results have sometimes tumbled into civilian life. For example, its early research gave rise to what we know today as the Internet.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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