Patient Capital

Breakthroughs in science require patient capital that must be provided by the government. Scientists need to be given a long rope and not be held to the standards of accountability to which we typically hold the government. They need to have bipartisan [[political support]] as they operate at time-scales beyond that which politicians normally function within. They need pipelines to market that will allow these ideas to be naturally commercialised.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Within 48 hours of the genetic sequence of the covid virus being published by Chinese scientists, Moderna had developed a recipe for a vaccine by deploying a new technology it had been using to develop a Zika vaccine. BioNTech, another company that had been using similar technology to develop a flu vaccine, was able to produce a working recipe even sooner—in a matter of hours. By the end of February, both companies had batches of viable vaccines ready for clinical trials. Never before in the history of humanity had we moved so rapidly from the identification of a disease to its prevention.

There are many reasons why we were able to produce covid vaccines so quickly. Advances in genetic technology made it possible for Chinese scientists to publish the genetic sequence of the virus in a matter of weeks, giving researchers a head-start in understanding how it worked inside the human body. Thanks to work that had already been done to understand the genetic make-up of other coronaviruses— SARS and MERS—scientists were able to quickly identify the specific genetic sequence that coded its distinctive spike protein. But by far the most significant reason why we were able to produce vaccines so soon was a new experimental technology that allowed us to take all we knew about the virus and use it to get the human body to engineer its own defences.

How mRNA Vaccines Work

Messenger RNA (or mRNA) refers to single-strand RNA molecules that carry instructions from our DNA to cells, telling them what proteins they should produce and when. For a while now, scientists have been able to design mRNA, introduce them into living cells, and get them to make proteins on demand. There are numerous applications for this: getting the body to produce proteins to supplement natural deficiencies, improve blood flow, or even reverse the effects of life-threatening diseases like multiple sclerosis.

But perhaps the most ingenious use of this technology is in combating disease. If mRNA can instruct the body to produce proteins that mimic the shape of an invading virus (in this case the spike protein), we can train our immune system in advance to identify dangers and create antibody defences for when a real virus comes along.

The technology is not new. Research in the field had been going on for at least two decades. But there were many occasions when funding ran out—to the point where this research was nearly shelved entirely. Had it not been for a $25 million grant from the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that kept the research work going, it might have taken us much longer to see light at the end of the covid-19 tunnel.

Patient Capital

Big scientific breakthroughs require patient capital. In a world where everyone is looking for quick answers, experimental technologies that have a long gestation period and no clear line of sight to a final outcome have a vanishingly low chance of securing funds. Private capital rarely has the appetite to support this sort of research, even though it is widely understood that this is the only way to come up with path-breaking innovations. But when the market does not step up, it is the duty of the state to fill the breach.

If there is one government agency in the world that has had success in funding moonshot research, it is DARPA. Thanks to its investment in scores of scientists and engineers over the years, it has incubated such truly revolutionary technologies as the internetautonomous vehiclesGPS… and, most recently, [[mRNA vaccines]]. What the world needs is more DARPAs, and over the past few years, several countries have taken steps to replicate this American model.

So what will it take to set up a DARPA in India?

The Three Challenges

According to The Economist, there are three unique challenges that need to be overcome. First, we need to make sure that we give the agency a long rope. Scientists need to be able go down rabbit-holes of enquiry without having to justify why—even if those lines of investigation end up being futile. They need to be able to try out fantastic ideas in the hope that one in a hundred—or even a thousand—will yield an elusive breakthrough. This sort of flexibility does not sit well with the granular levels of accountability that we would like to hold our government to, but if we believe the benefits are worth it, we must give such an agency the space it would need.

Then we will also need to muster up the political will to see this through. Moonshot projects, almost by definition, are incapable of yielding results on a time-scale that is of any use—or relevance—to politicians. That being the case, we need to secure political commitment beyond the time horizon within which most politicians are accustomed to working — by mustering bi-partisan support if need be.

Finally, we need to create pipelines to take innovations to market. For DARPA, this goal has been served by the US department of defense that gladly accepts any invention it comes up with and deploys it in the field. This not only gives inventors a way out of the laboratory into the real world, it also surfaces technologies that could have broader commercial appeal and allows them to be tested before being released to the wider world.

In our current context, these challenges might seem particularly insurmountable. But we must remember that India’s space programme has faced all these challenges and yet managed to become the unmitigated success that it is.

If we did it once, we can do it again.