Ex-DARPA chief Regina Dugan, Illumina founder Jay Flatley join Wellcome Trust fund to tackle global health’s Sputnik moment

In a locked-down world where vaccines offer the only hope for a way out of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s nearly impossible to imagine if RNA-based platforms — which broke records with a 60-day turnaround from time of sequence to first dosing in humans — aren’t around. But back in 2010, as the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Regina Dugan had a decision to make.

The idea was tempting. Not only did it map out a way for the body to make the antigen it would then immunize against, it also promised speed, a particularly important attribute when a pandemic strikes. The only issue: The technology had not really been validated.

“There was a lot of controversy about that at the time,” Dugan recalled, “because there wasn’t evidence to suggest that it would work, but there was also no evidence to suggest that it wouldn’t.”

Ultimately her team stuck with DARPA’s high-risk, high-reward ethos, backing biotechs that would go on to develop some of the leading