Receiving little to no attention, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) modified its structure on May 24, 2022. Proposed by President Biden and approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra, the agency announced its newly created Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). With a mission to improve the U.S. government’s ability to speed “high-risk, high reward” biomedical and health research, ARPA-H will serve as an independent entity within the NIH. As highlighted by former NIH Director Francis Collins, the brains behind ARPA-H, the agency would embrace the public-private partnership used to develop the experimental COVID-19 “vaccines.”

With “high-risk, high-reward” as a central anchor of ARPA-H, a page on the NIH website dedicated to the new agency explains that it will support transformative research solutions for all patients, ranging from “molecular to societal.” With no direct mention of the controversial gain-of-function research that has led many experts to question the origins of COVID-19, the page speaks of the “strengths and successes of the U.S. biomedical enterprise,” which supervised and conducted the risky research.

Congressional Research Service / Oversight of Gain of Function Research with Pathogens: Issues for Congress, May 26, 2022 / Appendix A. Select Biosafety/Security Events and Associated U.S. Policy Implementation Through 2018

Expressly, the ARPA-H webpage notes that advances like “the highly successful COVID-19 vaccines” present an opportunity to “revolutionize how to prevent, treat, and even cure a range of diseases including cancer, infectious diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and many others that together affect a significant number of Americans.”

Becerra appointed Adam H. Russell, D.Phil. to serve as acting deputy director of the new partnership. Currently, Dr. Russell is the Chief Scientist at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security (ARLIS), one of fourteen Department of Defense University-Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs). 

More on Adam H. Russell, D.Phil.

With Russell at the helm, the University of Maryland’s website notes that ARLIS is the only UARC with a “core mission” to support the U.S. government’s security and intelligence communities while striving to “integrate social and behavioral sciences, AI, and computing for new Human Domain applied research and development capabilities.” In 2009, before joining ARLIS, Russell teamed up with the U.S. government where he spent ten years as a Program Manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) before moving to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). 

Known as the “DARPAnthropologist,” Russell (who has a D.Phil. in social anthropology from Oxford and a BA in cultural anthropology from Duke) managed an extensive portfolio of “high-risk, high-impact” R&D programs at IARPA and DARPA, which focused on enhancing the U.S. government’s Human Domain capabilities “to better understand, anticipate, and leverage human social behavior and variability” through a long list of social and behavioral sciences strategies. Speaking of Russell, who will begin his new role sometime this month, Becerra said in a statement:

“We are ecstatic that Dr. Adam Russell has accepted the challenge to help launch ARPA-H, President Biden’s bold, new endeavor to support ambitious and potentially transformational health research in this country. ARPA-H will have a singular purpose: to drive breakthroughs in health, including the prevention, detection and treatment of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.”

Screenshot / Image from ARPA-H’s webpage on NIH website

The Mission of ARPA-H

According to its webpage, the “proposed mission” of the agency “could be to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies and broadly applicable platforms, capabilities, resources, and solutions” that might potentially transform critical areas of health and medicine for all patients. Significantly, the declared mission adds that ARPA-H will focus on emerging technologies and areas of medicine that “cannot be readily accomplished through traditional research or commercial activity.” 

The vision for ARPA-H was suggested by former NIH Director Francis Collins (who led the Human Genome Project) and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric S. Lander, PhD., on June 22, 2021. Funding for the agency is included in Biden’s March budget, where he requested $5 billion for ARPA-H, with additional funding for the NIH totaling $49 billion. Collins and Lander argued that ARPA-H “could act as a mechanism to remove barriers and bring bold ideas to fruition more quickly.” Taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, they added:

“ARPA-H could help the U.S. capitalize on this unprecedented moment of scientific promise to drive life-saving discoveries and advancements which have the potential to significantly impact the health and quality of life for all Americans.”

Insisting that ARPA-H requires “many of the same authorities and flexibilities employed by DARPA (which has been funding mRNA research for nearly a decade) and ARPA-E,” the White House “Fact Sheet” for ARPA-H explains that creating the agency within the NIH rather than a stand-alone entity makes sense because, among other things, ARPA-H must be closely coupled to the vast range of biomedical and health knowledge, expertise, and activities within the NIH. A look at the “Authorities needed by ARPA-H” as described by the Fact Sheet reveals the agency will indeed have considerable command over its projects. The Fact Sheet proclaims:

“ARPA-H will need broad, flexible funding authorities that make it possible to mix and match from the best ideas within different applications with minimal bureaucracy, that allow for projects that don’t fit neatly into one-year intervals, that allow for funding distribution over multiple years, and that provide a mechanism to challenge scientific teams and industry players to compete. 

ARPA-H will need exemptions from traditional proposal review processes, which work well for much of the biomedical research ecosystem, but can take 18 months or more to get from idea to workshop to concept clearance to funding announcement to application first, and second level scientific review before the actual work even begins.”