HHS puts $50M toward hospitals' ransomware fight

A new agency within the National Institutes of Health is launching a $50 million initiative to develop tools for hospital IT teams that enhance their cybersecurity measures and resources to combat ransomware.

On May 20, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health introduced its Universal PatchinG and Remediation for Autonomous DEfense, or UPGRADE, program. 

"What if every hospital could autonomously protect itself and patients from cyber threats?" That is the guiding question for the initiative, which aims to develop a tailored and scalable software suite of remediations and patches for hospitals, reducing the patching time for vulnerable healthcare products to days or weeks.

The announcement comes amid a challenging 2024 for healthcare cybersecurity, with ransomware attacks impacting significant parts of the system, including billing giant Change Healthcare and 140-hospital Ascension

"UPGRADE will speed the time from detecting a device vulnerability to safe, automated patch deployment down to a matter of days, providing confidence to hospital staff and peace of mind to the people in their care," ARPA-H Director Renee Wegrzyn, PhD, said in the agency's news release.  

The program will seek proposals in four technical areas:

  • Creating a vulnerability mitigation platform.
  • Developing high-fidelity digital twins of equipment in hospital environments.
  • Rapidly and automatically detecting software vulnerabilities.
  • Confidently developing defenses for each vulnerability.

ARPA-H expects to make multiple awards under the forthcoming solicitation, which is backed by $50 million.

"It's particularly challenging to model all the complexities of the software systems used in a given health care facility, and this limitation can leave hospitals and clinics uniquely open to ransomware attacks," UPGRADE Program Manager Andrew Carney said. "With UPGRADE, we want to reduce the effort it takes to secure hospital equipment and guarantee that devices are safe and functional so that health care providers can focus on patient care." 

ARPA-H, an independent entity within the National Institutes of Health, was formed in 2022. It functions as HHS' in-house funding innovator, supporting high-impact research to drive biomedical and healthcare breakthroughs.

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