DARPA Announces Disease Forecasting Prize

By Rachel Sachs

On Friday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a challenge to the public: provide the most accurate forecast of the spread of chikungunya virus in each of the countries in the Pan American Health Organization, win $150,000. Innovation prizes like DARPA’s are increasing in popularity, with public and private entities alike issuing challenges across a variety of subjects and methodologies. DARPA isn’t the first to announce a disease forecasting prize, either – the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently awarded a prize for predicting the timing and intensity of last winter’s flu season. But the choices both to focus on chikungunya and to do so using a prize fund are interesting ones that deserve further discussion.

Chikungunya is a viral disease spread by infected mosquitoes, much like the better-known malaria and dengue fever. Its symptoms often resemble those of dengue, whose other common name – breakbone fever – is telling. Chikungunya is rarely fatal, but it is often temporarily disabling, until the disease has run its course. And unfortunately, also like dengue, there is no specific treatment for chikungunya, although recent Phase I trials of a candidate vaccine appear to have been successful. But perhaps most importantly for DARPA’s purposes, chikungunya is also experiencing a resurgence in the Americas, including in the United States.

As the CDC notes, from 2006-2013, “an average of 28 people per year in the United States [tested positive] for recent chikungunya virus infection,” with no more than 65 cases in any given year, and all cases were contracted abroad. But thus far in 2014, 584 cases have already been reported, with at least one in almost every state – and four were acquired locally, in Florida. Chikungunya is therefore just like a number of neglected tropical diseases which have recently increased in prevalence in the United States, whether they are already endemic here (like dengue) or simply affect large numbers of people (like Chagas disease, which is thought to affect over 300,000 people in the United States). Because many of these diseases are spread by insects or other parasites, models of their transmission are likely to look different from those for diseases spread among humans, such as the flu.

The choice to use a prize fund to incentivize innovation into disease forecasting models is also an interesting one. Many scholars have written quite persuasively about the value of prizes as an alternative to intellectual property rights (here is one canonical example), and more broadly exploring the conditions under which prizes are likely to be useful as an innovation incentive. But in this context I want to highlight a work in progress by Michael Burstein and Fiona Murray, which explores the governance challenges involved in awarding innovation prizes. As one example, the prize sponsors must set the rules of the competition. This seems simple enough on its face, but when the sponsors by definition don’t know what the winning entry will look like, it is difficult to set parameters for the challenge that both permit the development of novel technological ideas and also provide sufficient constraints to permit competitors to rely on them. Examining the details of the DARPA challenge, the Agency appears to have thought deeply about these problems, but a more complete analysis can only be done as the challenge proceeds. I look forward to seeing the varied, original solutions that result from this initiative!

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