Some of the biggest threats globally today are microscopic. They are viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The problem is urgent. Right now the world faces the threat of a new strain of coronavirus. Organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working on containing the deadly disease, which has no known cure.

Other diseases, even ones that were formerly curable, menace populations around the globe. More than 700,000 people die of drug-resistant diseases annually, according to the United Nations. Because of overuse, older antibiotics don’t cure some life-threatening infections today. Pneumonia, E. coli, tuberculosis and MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) are stubborn maladies.

Countering biological threats

To tackle this growing menace, the U.S. government encourages fast-track research and development of new antibiotics. The government funds research on antibiotics and on other tools that might address antibiotic resistance.

The 12-year-old Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) bridges government and private-sector institutions that are working on new cures. It takes a venture capital approach, working with government labs but also funding small labs and startups that have bold ideas.

BARDA boasts of a streamlined funding application process. “I want government to move at the pace of innovation, not the pace of government,” BARDA director Rick Bright recently told 360Dx.

The approach is paying off. In December 2019, a BARDA-backed Ebola vaccine developed at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. It will be manufactured by Merck and available by the end of 2020.

An initiative called Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, or CARB-X, also was created with funding from BARDA, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and several partner governments and nonprofits.

New drugs and new technologies

BARDA-funded research includes developing these potential solutions:

  • Drugs that inhibit bacterial resistance to antibiotics.
  • Antibiotics that boost the immune system while fighting infection.
  • A drug that targets the potentially deadly C. difficile microbe.
Test tubes being filled by dropper (© Shutterstock)
(© Shutterstock)

BARDA also funds research on new diagnostic technologies such as:

  • Quickly distinguishing bacterial from viral infections by reading genes.
  • Using biomarkers to assess a person’s exposure to a disease before he or she becomes symptomatic.
  • Diagnosing aggressive diseases or serious conditions like sepsis in minutes, so that treatment can start in time to save lives.

In 2019 more than 50 health-related innovations received approval from the FDA — from a pandemic influenza vaccine to an anthrax diagnostic test. BARDA partnered with more than 300 companies to achieve these results.

“We continue to build and strengthen these partnerships using every business tool at our disposal,” Bright writes in his blog on the Public Health Emergency website.

Although BARDA was created to protect U.S. national security, its breakthroughs in medicine are shared with the world.