October 02, 2020

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On Oct. 4, 1957, Russia shocked the U.S. by launching the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit. Sputnik’s launch ignited a 20-year Space Race that would put men on the moon and push science and technology forward leaps and bounds. Now, as COVID-19 shocks the world again, Regina Dugan says we could be entering a new era marked by big breakthroughs in medical science. 

Dugan, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and CEO of Wellcome Leap, says this Health Age could lower research costs, speed up clinical trials and improve mental health treatments — and bring us a coronavirus vaccine along the way. The first step in all of this? Capturing the nation’s imagination to go beyond what we think possible.

Three Takeaways:

  • Human health, climate change and cyberspace pose problems that “defy lines on a map,” Dugan says. And solutions on these fronts require international collaboration. We’re seeing some teamwork related to COVID-19, with 10,000 viral sequences shared and more than 2,000 clinical trials underway, she says. But more funding and commitment from leaders is also required.
  • Each year, poor health costs about 15% of global real GDP, Dugan says. By reframing health “as an investment, not just a cost” we could both save lives and accelerate future economic growth. To her, it’s a win-win.
  • Tissue and organ engineering could change the way clinical trials are done, Dugan says, potentially eliminating animal testing and saving billions of dollars. Plus, according to Dugan, the ability to screen treatments on genetically diverse cells in the lab could mean treatments end up more effective for more people down the line.

More Reading:

  • This Washington Post article tells the backstory of how Dan Wattendorf pushed DARPA into experimenting with RNA vaccines — a move that’s proved vital in the quest for a quick COVID-19 vaccine.
  • This New York Times tracker is an up-to-date breakdown of our progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine. Right now, we’ve got more than 90 in the works, including 43 in clinical trials. And if you’re not sure how clinical trials really work, it gives a good outline of what to expect from each phase of the trials too.
  • When Russia’s Gamaleya Institute raced to roll out the Sputnik V vaccine, many scientists around the world raised alarm. But the institute’s director, Alexander Gintsburg, says their speed is warranted — and it doesn’t mean they’re disregarding safety. Aljazeera has more on the Russian approach here.

Regina Dugan, health age, health care, medicine, pandemic

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