Studies leave question of ‘airborne’ coronavirus transmission unanswered

Studies leave question of ‘airborne’ coronavirus transmission unanswered
Research from China detects virus traces in the air, but it is unclear whether such aerosols are infectious or a significant part of the pandemic
By Joel Achenbach and Carolyn Y. Johnson
Apr 29 2020

A growing number of studies, including one published this week in the journal Nature, have found evidence that the coronavirus can remain suspended in the air in aerosol particles. That raises anew the question of whether and to what extent the virus can be transmitted as an aerosol — although the evidence is far from conclusive and no such infections have been documented.

The consensus so far is that the virus, although very contagious, spreads through respiratory droplets generated when people breathe, speak or cough and doesn’t infect people through particles that can linger in the air for hours, in the way that measles and some other viral diseases can.

But the research is fueling a scientific debate over one of the most basic questions about the novel coronavirus — how it spreads — and doing so at a time of high anxiety and rattled nerves. Outbreaks linked to crowded indoor environments such as prisons, meatpacking plants, a cramped call center and a restaurant may serve as warnings about the perils of reopening.

The scientific literature is full of alarming questions: Could ventilation systems spread the virus? Could removing clothing shake virus particles back into the air?

Research has shown that the virus typically is transmitted from person to person through relatively large respiratory droplets that travel only a few feet before falling to the floor or ground. People can also become infected by touching contaminated objects — known among scientists as fomites — and then, for example, touching their face.

“Airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19 and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence,” concluded a comprehensive report by researchers from China and the World Health Organization published in February.

But that report went on to say that some medical procedures in health-care facilities, such as intubating a patient, can generate virus aerosols. And research at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, showed that virus particles aerosolized with laboratory equipment remained viable — still capable of growing in a cell culture — for up to three hours while suspended in the air.

The Nature paper, authored by scientists at Wuhan University in China, reported that aerosolized traces of viral genetic material, called RNA, were found in two hospitals — particularly in poorly ventilated spaces. The highest concentration of the aerosol particles were found in a single-person mobile toilet that lacked ventilation. Viral RNA was also found in an area where hospital workers took off their protective gear.

The report, however, did not establish whether the airborne coronavirus samples were viable — that is, capable of generating a new infection.

“Although we have not established the infectivity of the virus detected in these hospital areas, we propose that SARS-CoV-2 may have the potential to be transmitted via aerosols,” the authors wrote. “Our results indicate that room ventilation, open space, sanitization of protective apparel, and proper use and disinfection of toilet areas can effectively limit the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in aerosols.”

The public should view the new China airborne virus study with caution, because the PCR test cannot distinguish viable virus from genetic fragments that aren’t infectious, said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Irvine.

“The test for viable virus is a much-more-painstaking cell culture test, which the present study did not perform,” Noymer said.

An alarming report from a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, showed that one infected person who had not yet developed symptoms infected nine other diners. Researchers suggested that an air-conditioning unit recirculating the air could have spread droplets, carrying the virus between tables.

“This just demonstrates the terrible confusion that is created by the common misconception that there’s somehow a bright line between aerosols and respiratory droplets,” said Donald Milton, professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “First of all, they are all respiratory droplets — some are larger and some are smaller, all the way down to microdroplets less than a single micron in diameter. It is true that larger droplets will behave as aerosols as the velocity of air increases, countering the pull of gravity so that they don’t fall out.”

A study from an 11th-floor South Korean call center found that 94 people were infected in a single outbreak, most of them clustered in one half of the office. The authors wrote that the outbreak highlights that the virus is “exceptionally contagious in crowded office settings such as a call center.”

That does not necessarily mean aerosolized particles caused the infections.

“I’m skeptical. To my knowledge we haven’t really seen evidence of transmission occurring that way,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “The transmission studies from the call center and restaurant suggest that regular airborne droplet transmission in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces is itself a transmission risk without needing to worry about small particle aerosols, too.”

To test whether aerosolized particles are spreading the virus, researchers will have to grow live virus from those samples and not simply recover viral RNA, which could just be residual genetic material not capable of seeding new infections.

A report, not yet peer-reviewed, from the University of Nebraska Medical Center found virus RNA on the surfaces of cellphones, toilets, bedside tables and exercise equipment used by 13 patients with confirmed cases of covid-19. Samples from the hallway outside patient rooms were also positive for viral RNA, suggesting that aerosols could be spreading the virus, but again the research did not conclude that the hallway samples were infectious.

Outside researchers remain skeptical of this fragmentary data.


The USPS Is A Poster Child For Destruction Of The Commons

The USPS Is A Poster Child For Destruction Of The Commons
Apr 29 2020

Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution vests Congress with the power to “establish Post Offices and Post Roads”, now known as the Postal Clause. Post Offices and Post Roads were a legacy of the British royal post system, which was not originally designed for public use but was instead a state-run monopoly designed to allow secure communication among government officials while monitoring and restricting the flow of both information and people as well as being an important source of revenue. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that postal service even began to be considered as an aid to commerce and a public service.

The Postal Service Act of 1792 radically changed the mission of the Post Office, imbuing it with a civic mandate. The Act guaranteed privacy of the mail, established regular postal routes and more consistent delivery, and expanded on freedom of the press by including newspaper delivery. It provided for a national postal system as the country expanded and became more populous. The Act lay the groundwork for the expansion of literacy, commerce, and democracy itself throughout the country over the next two centuries. Alexis de Tocqueville described the US Postal Service as the “great link between minds”, while the German-born philosopher Francis Lieber called it an “element of civilization”.

As a result of that civic mandate, the Postal Service has been a remarkably progressive and, yes, innovative institution. In the 1800s, it was one of the few places where women could actually work, acting as small-town postmasters. After the Civil War, it employed significant numbers of African Americans. During that war, using the savings from not having to support services in the Confederacy, it instituted City Free Delivery that brought the mail directly to urban households as well as the postal money order that allowed Union soldiers to send their pay back home. Air Mail delivery helped develop the fledgling aviation industry in the post-World War I period. In the early 1900s, Rural Free Delivery and parcel post were introduced as was the radical concept of postal banking, providing banking services to the underserved communities in the South and the West as well as to the burgeoning numbers of urban immigrants.

From its inception, postal banking was limited, restricting the size of deposits and balances in addition to offering lower interest rates, conditions demanded by private commercial banks. But the widespread bank failures associated with the Great Depression resulted in postal banks holding 10% of all US deposits. FDR used the postal banks to sell Treasury bonds to help pay for the New Deal and “Defense Savings Stamps” to help pay for World War II. Postal banks thrived during World War II as the innovation of banking by mail allowed GIs to bank from abroad.

Ironically, it was FDR’s initiative to create the FDIC that eventually killed the postal bank. With private banks now government insured, they not only could provide the same safety of postal banks but do so while offering higher interest rates. In 1966, postal banking was quietly phased out as part of LBJ’s attempts at government reform and, as Mehrsa Baradaran writes, “America’s most successful experiment in financial inclusion” ended.

The postal banking experiment may have ended but innovation didn’t, with the Post Office becoming a pioneer in the development of optical character recognition in the mid-1960s. By the 1970s, check-cashing services and payday lenders had stepped into the void created by the dissolution of postal banking, charging usurious rates to those underserved by the banking system. Today, payday lending is a $90 billion industry, even after some of its worst abuses have been curtailed by the CFPB and state laws.

But the end of postal banking signaled the beginning of the effort to privatize the commons, turning the Postal Service into a self-sustaining business and abandoning the Postal Service’s subsidized civic mandate that was written into a 1958 law that clearly stated the Service was “clearly not a business enterprise conducted for profit”. In 1970, after decades of underinvestment, postal workers went on strike illegally, demanding better wages and working conditions as well as protesting Nixon’s effort to make the Service a self-sustaining enterprise. Until then, postal unions had no bargaining rights and relied solely on Congress to provide wage and benefit increases. That strike was settled later that year and resulted in the passage of the Postal Service Reorganization Act which revamped the Postal Service from being a tax subsidized cabinet department and into a supposedly self-sustaining independent agency, while giving postal workers retroactive pay increases and union bargaining power. The new law was a contradiction from the start, requiring “that no small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit” even as it demanded the USPS be self-sustaining.

The next big blow for the USPS came in 2006 as the effort moved away from simply running the Service as a business and more toward privatization. Republicans rammed through the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, a bill that insanely required the Postal Service to pre-fund its next 50 years of pension and retirement benefits by 2016. In order to do this, the Service had to set aside over $5.6 billion each year, basically an 8% tax on its revenue, all while theoretically maintaining self-sufficiency. Again, the approach was absurd, asking the Post Office to run like a business while requiring future pension and benefit funding that applied to no other public or private enterprise.

The bill appeared to be an attempt to force the USPS into insolvency, which is exactly what the Postal Service faces today. By 2011, the USPS closed over half of its mail-processing facilities, cut back on deliveries, and reduced its workforce, abandoning overnight delivery of first-class mail. Even back in 2006, the GOP was grumbling about the postal rates for Amazon. That theme has, of course, been glommed onto by Trump, primarily because of Bezos and the Washington Post. But package delivery has been one area where the USPS’ profits have been climbing, whereas first-class mail has been cratering due to other technology options such as email and on-line bill paying. And the USPS is still an important element of “last-mile” delivery options for not just Amazon, but FedEx and UPS.

Currently, the larger goal for Republicans regarding the USPS is not only the desire to destroy the postal unions but also, at least for this election, to make voting by mail near impossible. In addition, they would love to privatize much of the Postal Service, selling it off to corporate behemoths on the cheap. As one conservative commentator wrote, “the U.S. government could impose a universal-service obligation on a privatized USPS and, if needed, pay the firm a small subsidy to cover the extra costs”. In other words, sell of the profitable parts of the USPS to corporate interests on the cheap and have taxpayers subsidize the unprofitable parts.


Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice

Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice
The state is about to find out how many people need to lose their lives to shore up the economy.
Apr 29 2020

At first, Derek Canavaggio thought he would be able to ride out the coronavirus pandemic at home until things were safe. As a bar manager at the Globe in Athens, Georgia, Canavaggio hasn’t been allowed to work for weeks. Local officials in Athens issued Georgia’s first local shelter-in-place order on March 19, canceling the events that usually make spring a busy time for Athens bars and effectively eliminating the city’s rowdy downtown party district built around the University of Georgia. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, followed in early April with a statewide shutdown.

But then the governor sent Canavaggio into what he calls “spreadsheet hell.” In an announcement last week, Kemp abruptly reversed course on the shutdown, ending many of his own restrictions on businesses and overruling those put in place by mayors throughout the state. On Friday, gyms, churches, hair and nail salons, and tattoo parlors were allowed to reopen, if the owners were willing. Yesterday, restaurants and movie theaters came back. The U-turn has left Georgians scrambling. Canavaggio has spent days crunching the numbers to figure out whether reopening his bar is worth the safety risk, or even feasible in the first place, given how persistent safety concerns could crater demand for a leisurely indoor happy hour. “We can’t figure out a way to make the numbers work to sustain business and pay rent and pay everybody to go back and risk their lives,” he told me. “If we tried to open on Monday, we’d be closed in two weeks, probably for good and with more debt on our hands.”

Kemp’s order shocked people across the country. For weeks, Americans have watched the coronavirus sweep from city to city, overwhelming hospitals, traumatizing health-care workers, and leaving tens of thousands of bodies in makeshift morgues. Georgia has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and the state’s testing efforts have provided an incomplete look at how far the virus continues to spread. That testing capacity—which public-health leaders consider necessary for safely ending lockdowns—has lagged behind the nation’s for much of the past two months. Kemp’s move to reopen was condemned by scientists, high-ranking Republicans from his own state, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; it even drew a public rebuke from President Donald Trump, who had reportedly approved the measures before distancing himself from the governor amid the backlash.

Public-health officials broadly agree that reopening businesses—especially those that require close physical contact—in places where the virus has already spread will kill people. Even so, many other states are quietly considering similar moves to Georgia’s. Most are taking a more measured approach—waiting a bit longer to reopen, setting testing or infection benchmarks that must first be met—but some, such as Oklahoma and Colorado, have already put similar plans in motion. By acting with particular haste in what he calls a crucial move to restore economic stability, Kemp has positioned Georgia at the center of a national fight over whether to stay the course with social distancing or try to return to some semblance of normalcy. But it’s easy to misunderstand which Americans stand on each side. Many Georgians have no delusions about the risks of reopening, even if they need to return to work for financial reasons. Among the dozen local leaders, business owners, and workers I spoke with for this article, all said they know some people who disagreed with the lockdown but were complying nonetheless. No one reported serious acrimony in their communities.

Instead, their stories depict a struggle between a state government and ordinary people. Georgia’s brash reopening puts much of the state’s working class in an impossible bind: risk death at work, or risk ruining yourself financially at home. In the grips of a pandemic, the approach is a morbid experiment in just how far states can push their people. Georgians are now the largely unwilling canaries in an invisible coal mine, sent to find out just how many individuals need to lose their job or their life for a state to work through a plague.

Estimates vary as to how many businesses might actually reopen now, but none of the Georgians I talked with knew many people who intended to voluntarily head right back to work. That was true in Athens, which has long been one of the Deep South’s most progressive cities, as well as in Blackshear, a small town in the rural southeastern part of the state that tends toward conservatism. Kelly Girtz, the mayor of Athens, estimated that about 90 percent of the local business owners he had spoken with in the past week had no intention of reopening immediately. “Georgia’s plan simply is not that well designed,” Girtz says. “To call it a ‘plan’ might be overstating the case.”

Several of Georgia’s Republican mayors did not return requests for comment, but some have publicly supported Kemp’s decision. In Watkinsville, which is near Athens, Mayor Bob Smith released a statement on Sunday encouraging the town’s residents to return to religious services and their jobs.

Certainly, demand for these businesses’ services still exists. For many hair stylists, the response to Kemp’s reopening announcement was swift. Zach Lee, a salon owner in Blackshear who closed his business well in advance of the state’s shutdown, told me he heard from clients within 15 minutes of Kemp’s press conference. Lee had to tell them he wouldn’t be reopening yet because he didn’t think doing so was safe. “I want to work. I’m a workaholic. I can’t wait to get back behind the chair and do hair,” he said. “But now is not the time. I really don’t feel like being the guinea pig in this situation, and I don’t want my clients being guinea pigs either.”

Lee has been without an income for six weeks. He’s heard that at least another six will pass before he’s able to access any of the federal relief funds that have been promised for small businesses like his. Many of his clients have bought gift cards or mailed him checks to help with his expenses while he stays at home.

In the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, another salon owner, Sabra Dupree, has decided to give reopening a shot. She has run a place called Kids Kuts for more than 20 years. When the governor shut down businesses like hers, she began preparing to eventually reopen. “We gutted the whole salon,” she told me. “We sanitized it. We cleaned it. We repainted the stations. We took the porous countertops off and put granite countertops on.” Only three of the salon’s five staff members want to work right now. During their shifts, they’ll be fully outfitted in the protective gear—masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves—now required by the state’s board of cosmetology. “If I’m doing it wrong, shame on me, but I’m trying,” Dupree said. “It would be different if I were sitting here in a mansion and I could give every single person $10,000 to be closed and stay home, but that’s not an option for us.”

Extensive protective gear is required in most types of reopened businesses, which was a sticking point for every Georgian I spoke with who was contemplating a return to work. They said the state is providing neither the gear itself nor guidance on how to get it, so they’re in the same market as everyone else, competing with medical workers and high-risk people who need masks to safely go to the grocery store. Lee said he doesn’t “feel comfortable buying up that stuff right now when there’s hospitals that are needing it and they can’t get it.” Dupree said that to secure the gear she needed to reopen, she had to ask clients and friends to volunteer their extras.

Many workers and business owners have to factor in competition. “The trouble with [Kemp’s] ad hoc orders is that they sort of gin up a generalized interest in commercial or business activity,” said Girtz, who spent much of his career as a local public-school teacher before becoming the mayor of Athens last year. When people hear on the news that businesses are open, many will assume that it’s safe to patronize them, and may miss more nuanced information about ongoing safety concerns. And when only some businesses open, they’re able to capitalize on this interest and swipe business from still-closed competitors.

For hair stylists, barbers, and nail technicians, whose livelihoods are especially reliant on loyal customers, losing business to others is worrisome. “I want to keep my clients and I don’t want them to see anybody else,” Jillian Yeskel, a stylist in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, told me. Yeskel has asthma, which might worsen cases of COVID-19, so she’s decided to hold off on returning to work for at least another two weeks. During the shutdown order, she didn’t have to pay rent for her salon station like she normally does, but now that the order has been lifted, she’ll have to start paying again.

For restaurants, the decision to open up can be even more complicated. Profit margins in the food-service industry are already notoriously slim, and Georgia’s restaurants have been instructed to reduce their capacity by half to ensure distance between customers. Places like the Globe that rely on alcohol sales for most of their profits can’t meaningfully offset the loss with limited in-house service and takeout and delivery. “Our rent isn’t changing, but our capacity for our building is greatly reduced,” Canavaggio said. “Unless we start selling $400 beers, what do we have?” The Globe, he decided, will remain closed indefinitely.


FINTAN O’TOOLE. Donald Trump has destroyed the country he promised to make great again

[Note:  This item comes from friend Scott McNeil.  DLH]

FINTAN O’TOOLE. Donald Trump has destroyed the country he promised to make great again
By Fintan O’Toole
Apr 25 2020

Usually, when this kind of outlandish idiocy is displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.

US President Donald Trump has claimed he was being sarcastic and testing the media when he raised the idea that injecting disinfectant or irradiating the body with ultraviolet light might kill coronavirus.

Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.

However bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel sorry for Americans. Most of them did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.

Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic.

As the American writer George Packer puts it in the current edition of the Atlantic, “The United States reacted … like Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”

It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time – wilfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is one thing for governments to fail (as, in one degree or another, most governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters actively spread a deadly virus. Trump, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News became vectors of the pestilence.

The grotesque spectacle of the president openly inciting people (some of them armed) to take to the streets to oppose the restrictions that save lives is the manifestation of a political death wish. What are supposed to be daily briefings on the crisis, demonstrative of national unity in the face of a shared challenge, have been used by Trump merely to sow confusion and division. They provide a recurring horror show in which all the neuroses that haunt the American subconscious dance naked on live TV.

If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped the past century – has all but evaporated.

Other than the Trump impersonator Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who is now looking to the US as the exemplar of anything other than what not to do? How many people in Düsseldorf or Dublin are wishing they lived in Detroit or Dallas?

It is hard to remember now but, even in 2017, when Trump took office, the conventional wisdom in the US was that the Republican Party and the broader framework of US political institutions would prevent him from doing too much damage. This was always a delusion, but the pandemic has exposed it in the most savage ways.

What used to be called mainstream conservatism has not absorbed Trump – he has absorbed it. Almost the entire right-wing half of American politics has surrendered abjectly to him. It has sacrificed on the altar of wanton stupidity the most basic ideas of responsibility, care and even safety.

Thus, even at the very end of March, 15 Republican governors had failed to order people to stay at home or to close non-essential businesses. In Alabama, for example, it was not until April 3rd that governor Kay Ivey finally issued a stay-at-home order.

In Florida, the state with the highest concentration of elderly people with underlying conditions, governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump mini-me, kept the beach resorts open to students travelling from all over the US for spring break parties. Even on April 1st, when he issued restrictions, DeSantis exempted religious services and “recreational activities”.

There is, as the demonstrations in US cities show, plenty of political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp, when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on April 1st, explained: “We didn’t know that [the virus can be spread by people without symptoms] until the last 24 hours.”

This is not mere ignorance – it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity. There is, as the demonstrations this week in US cities have shown, plenty of political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic. It is fuelled by Fox News and far-right internet sites, and it reaps for these politicians millions of dollars in donations, mostly (in an ugly irony) from older people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

It draws on a concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science, paranoia about the “deep state” and religious providentialism (God will protect the good folks) that is now very deeply infused in the mindset of the American right.

Trump embodies and enacts this mindset, but he did not invent it. The US response to the coronavirus crisis has been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control all the levers of governmental power. On the other they have created a popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil and must not be trusted.

The contradiction was made manifest in two of Trump’s statements on the pandemic: on the one hand that he has “total authority”, and on the other that “I don’t take responsibility at all”. Caught between authoritarian and anarchic impulses, he is incapable of coherence.

But this is not just Donald Trump. The crisis has shown definitively that Trump’s presidency is not an aberration. It has grown on soil long prepared to receive it. The monstrous blossoming of misrule has structure and purpose and strategy behind it.

There are very powerful interests who demand “freedom” in order to do as they like with the environment, society and the economy. They have infused a very large part of American culture with the belief that “freedom” is literally more important than life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get shot at school. Now, my freedom to go to the barber (“I Need a Haircut” read one banner this week in St Paul, Minnesota) trumps your need to avoid infection.

Usually, when this kind of outlandish idiocy is displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.


To Open the US Economy, We Need a Contact Tracing Workforce of 180,000

To Open the US Economy, We Need a Contact Tracing Workforce of 180,000
Today, along with 15 others, I published a detailed proposal to help the country move forward
By Andy Slavitt
Apr 27 2020

In early March, I sent a note to someone at Google and called a board member there to ask if their phones could be used to help people trace their whereabouts to help limit the spread of Covid-19. At the time we had dozens of cases. Hundreds of cases seemed like it was in the distant future. I was telling governors I thought the cases would be eventually in the tens or hundreds of thousands. I actually remember cutting the word millions because no one would find it credible.

It already seemed impossible that we would do as well as South Korea. “Italy is our future”, someone who had studied the numbers told me. The only path to hold the numbers down was if people stopped it from spreading.

So we launched the #StayHome campaign. It felt like the most immediate, but almost desperate, step. No state had implemented any lockdown orders. Our letter asked people to take things into their own hands and policymakers to follow. To do this, I reached out to signatories to get people’s attention. And people who understood social media and media. And we relentlessly called governors.

Things happened fast. Cases grew. We were asking people to do something that would take weeks to begin to work.

“The public won’t go for it.”

“This isn’t China.”

“No one will voluntarily do this.”

I was told all of these things by more experienced people . All I could think was; “We don’t have a choice.”

The question for Google was the wrong one. I knew one person who knew the CEO’s of Google and Apple. Most people had one of those phone systems. “Would they work together?” This person said they would try.

Yes! Technology would rescue us! I so wanted to believe that. I was looking for silver bullets. If I’m honest, I was looking for the feeling of accomplishment. But I was lying to myself.

I’ve since talked to, and heard from, many tech firms and app builders including very capable people and companies like Salesforce. Really sophisticated people. Cool technology may be part of the answer, but I started to doubt. Even if the technology worked, we had a problem. Math.

The math was simple. Mandatory or voluntary? Opt-in or opt-out? I needed to know where the public was. I called the best survey people I knew. They agreed to drop a survey. While I waited, first I did something pointless, a Twitter quiz:

We got the results of the poll last week. People were slightly comfortable with these apps, but with some political divides. People could be persuaded, but a sizable majority could not.

It was clear that these apps would have to be opt-in, not opt-out — the tech firms were clearly sensitive to privacy concerned. 40% of people opting-in felt optimistic. And if the infected person and their contact both needed to opt-in, that could make the effectiveness only 16%.

Talking to friends working on this problem made it clear we would need people, a lot of people. That took money, and the states were out of money. The Federal government would need to help. And Congress was working on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Time to act.

We ended up sending the letter below to Congress at 5am Eastern:

The major pieces:

• A national 180,000 person contact tracing workforce
• $4.5 billion to allow people to voluntarily isolate at a hotel if there’s no room at home
• $30 billion to replace income for people who had to isolate
• Engaging primary care physicians

Letters like this are put together for two different reasons; 1) send a message or 2) get it done. We wanted to get it done which meant that we needed to have details that worked, a broad non-partisan credible group, and a clear rollout plan.

Some of the most notable and respected people who have worked on infectious diseases and pandemics the country lent their expertise and signed on; Tom Inglesby, Larry Brilliant, Farzad Mostashari, Mike Osterholm, and Joshua Sharfstein.

Public health and health care experts like, Dr. Leana Wen and Eric Topol. And experts from different Administrations like Bob Kocher, Mark McClellan, Bill Frist, M.D., Mike Leavitt, Atul Gawande, Vivek Murthy, and Juliette Kayyem all reviewed, added and signed on.

Importantly, Scott Gottlieb agreed to co-lead the letter and brought his expertise (and political balance). He ran the FDA in this Administration and did a great job. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and the White House, trust him. I have found little I disagree with him on.

I called Senators, House members, and the White House and discussed, not only the content of the proposals, but the timing as well. Sending this over in the middle of PPP could damage it. $25 billion was going into testing. All the contact tracing in the world wouldn’t matter without testing.

So we waited. We took feedback. Civil liberties were important to some. Fiscal responsibility to others. Equity to me. We wanted it done. A federal-state partnership made the most sense.

Case counts were unpredictable so we built a mechanism to recover unspent money. There were estimates higher than ours and lower. We just wanted ours to be the straight story and avoid land mines. Congressional appropriations committees will want to see the work. Committees will want to be briefed. In any legislation there are lots of priorities — family leave, small business support, stimulus, the disability community. All are important. All cost money.


Airlines and oil giants are on the brink. No government should offer them a lifeline

Airlines and oil giants are on the brink. No government should offer them a lifeline
This crisis is a chance to rebuild our economy for the good of humanity. Let’s bail out the living world, not its destroyers
By George Monbiot
Apr 29 2020

Do Not Resuscitate. This tag should be attached to the oil, airline and car industries. Governments should provide financial support to company workers while refashioning the economy to provide new jobs in different sectors. They should prop up only those sectors that will help secure the survival of humanity and the rest of the living world.

They should either buy up the dirty industries and turn them towards clean technologies, or do what they often call for but never really want: let the market decide. In other words, allow these companies to fail.

This is our second great chance to do things differently. It could be our last. The first, in 2008, was spectacularly squandered. Vast amounts of public money were spent reassembling the filthy old economy, while ensuring that wealth remained in the hands of the rich. Today, many governments appear determined to repeat that catastrophic mistake.

The “free market” has always been a product of government policy. If antitrust laws are weak, a few behemoths survive while everyone else goes down. If dirty industries are tightly regulated, clean ones flourish. If not, the corner-cutters win. But the dependency of enterprises on public policy has seldom been greater in capitalist nations than it is today. Many major industries are now entirely beholden to the state for their survival. Governments have the oil industry over a barrel – hundreds of millions of unsaleable barrels, to be more precise – just as they had the banks over a barrel in 2008. Then, they failed to use their power to eradicate the sector’s socially destructive practices and rebuild it around human needs. They are making the same mistake today.

The Bank of England has decided to buy debt from oil companies such as BP, Shell and Total. The government has given easyJet a £600m loan even though, just a few weeks ago, the company frittered away £171m in dividends: profit is privatised, risk is socialised. In the US, the first bailout includes $60bn (£48bn) for airlines. Overall, the bailout involves sucking as much oil as possible into strategic petroleum reserves and sweeping away pollution laws, while freezing out renewable energy. Several European countries are seeking to rescue their airlines and car manufacturers.

Don’t believe them when they tell you they do this on our behalf. A recent survey by Ipsos of 14 countries suggests that, on average, 65% of people want climate change to be prioritised in the economic recovery. Everywhere, electorates must struggle to persuade governments to act in the interests of the people, rather than the corporations and billionaires who fund and lobby them. The perennial democratic challenge is to break the bonds between politicians and the economic sectors they should be regulating, or, in this case, closing down.

Even when legislators seek to represent these concerns, their efforts are often feeble and naive. The recent letter to the government from a cross-party group of MPs calling for airlines to receive a bailout only if they “do more to tackle the climate crisis” could have been written in 1990. Air travel is inherently polluting. There are no realistic measures that could, even in the medium term, make a significant difference. We now know that the carbon offsetting schemes the MPs call for is useless: every economic sector needs to maximise cuts in greenhouse gases, so shifting the responsibility from one sector to another solves nothing. The only meaningful reform is fewer flights. Anything that impedes the contraction of the aviation industry impedes the reduction of its impacts.

The current crisis gives us a glimpse of how much we need to do to pull out of our disastrous trajectory. Despite the vast changes we have made in our lives, global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to reduce by only about 5.5% this year. A UN report shows that to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding 1.5C or more of global heating, we need to cut emissions by 7.6% per year for the next decade. In other words, the lockdown exposes the limits of individual action. Travelling less helps, but not enough. To make the necessary cuts we need structural change. This means an entirely new industrial policy, created and guided by government.

Governments like the UK’s should drop their road-building plans. Instead of expanding airports, they should publish plans for reducing landing slots. They should commit to an explicit policy of leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

During the pandemic, many of us have begun to discover how much of our travel is unnecessary. Governments can build on this to create plans for reducing the need to move, while investing in walking, cycling and – when physical distancing is less necessary – public transport. This means wider pavements, better cycle lanes, buses run for service not profit. They should invest heavily in green energy, and even more heavily in reducing energy demand – through, for example, home insulation and better heating and lighting. The pandemic exposes the need for better neighbourhood design, with less public space given to cars and more to people. It also shows how badly we need the kind of security that a lightly taxed, deregulated economy cannot deliver.


Ten reasons why a ‘Greater Depression’ for the 2020s is inevitable

Ten reasons why a ‘Greater Depression’ for the 2020s is inevitable
Ominous and risky trends were around long before Covid-19, making an L-shaped depression very likely
By Nouriel Roubini
Apr 29 2020

After the 2007-09 financial crisis, the imbalances and risks pervading the global economy were exacerbated by policy mistakes. So, rather than address the structural problems that the financial collapse and ensuing recession revealed, governments mostly kicked the can down the road, creating major downside risks that made another crisis inevitable. And now that it has arrived, the risks are growing even more acute. Unfortunately, even if the Greater Recession leads to a lacklustre U-shaped recovery this year, an L-shaped “Greater Depression” will follow later in this decade, owing to 10 ominous and risky trends.

The first trend concerns deficits and their corollary risks: debts and defaults. The policy response to the Covid-19 crisis entails a massive increase in fiscal deficits – on the order of 10% of GDP or more – at a time when public debt levels in many countries were already high, if not unsustainable.

Worse, the loss of income for many households and firms means that private-sector debt levels will become unsustainable, too, potentially leading to mass defaults and bankruptcies. Together with soaring levels of public debt, this all but ensures a more anaemic recovery than the one that followed the Great Recession a decade ago.

A second factor is the demographic timebomb in advanced economies. The Covid-19 crisis shows that much more public spending must be allocated to health systems, and that universal healthcare and other relevant public goods are necessities, not luxuries. Yet, because most developed countries have ageing societies, funding such outlays in the future will make the implicit debts from today’s unfunded healthcare and social security systems even larger.

A third issue is the growing risk of deflation. In addition to causing a deep recession, the crisis is also creating a massive slack in goods (unused machines and capacity) and labour markets (mass unemployment), as well as driving a price collapse in commodities such as oil and industrial metals. That makes debt deflation likely, increasing the risk of insolvency.

A fourth (related) factor will be currency debasement. As central banks try to fight deflation and head off the risk of surging interest rates (following from the massive debt build-up), monetary policies will become even more unconventional and far-reaching. In the short run, governments will need to run monetised fiscal deficits to avoid depression and deflation. Yet, over time, the permanent negative supply shocks from accelerated de-globalisation and renewed protectionism will make stagflation all but inevitable.

A fifth issue is the broader digital disruption of the economy. With millions of people losing their jobs or working and earning less, the income and wealth gaps of the 21st-century economy will widen further. To guard against future supply-chain shocks, companies in advanced economies will re-shore production from low-cost regions to higher-cost domestic markets. But rather than helping workers at home, this trend will accelerate the pace of automation, putting downward pressure on wages and further fanning the flames of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

This points to the sixth major factor: deglobalisation. The pandemic is accelerating trends toward balkanisation and fragmentation that were already well underway. The US and China will decouple faster, and most countries will respond by adopting still more protectionist policies to shield domestic firms and workers from global disruptions. The post-pandemic world will be marked by tighter restrictions on the movement of goods, services, capital, labour, technology, data, and information. This is already happening in the pharmaceutical, medical-equipment, and food sectors, where governments are imposing export restrictions and other protectionist measures in response to the crisis.

The backlash against democracy will reinforce this trend. Populist leaders often benefit from economic weakness, mass unemployment, and rising inequality. Under conditions of heightened economic insecurity, there will be a strong impulse to scapegoat foreigners for the crisis. Blue-collar workers and broad cohorts of the middle class will become more susceptible to populist rhetoric, particularly proposals to restrict migration and trade.

This points to an eighth factor: the geostrategic standoff between the US and China. With the Trump administration making every effort to blame China for the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime will double down on its claim that the US is conspiring to prevent China’s peaceful rise. The Sino-American decoupling in trade, technology, investment, data, and monetary arrangements will intensify.

Worse, this diplomatic breakup will set the stage for a new cold war between the US and its rivals – not just China, but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea. With a US presidential election approaching, there is every reason to expect an upsurge in clandestine cyber warfare, potentially leading even to conventional military clashes. And because technology is the key weapon in the fight for control of the industries of the future and in combating pandemics, the US private tech sector will become increasingly integrated into the national-security-industrial complex.


Pentagon releases three UFO videos taken by US navy pilots

Pentagon releases three UFO videos taken by US navy pilots
The previously leaked videos were declassified to ‘clear up any misconceptions’ on whether they were real
By Daniel Strauss
Apr 28 2020

The Pentagon on Monday released three declassified videos that show US navy pilots encountering what appear to be unidentified flying objects.

The grainy videos, which the Pentagon says depict “unexplained aerial phenomena”, were previously leaked, with some believing they show alien UFOs.

The Pentagon said it released the footage to “to clear up any misconceptionsby the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real or whether or not there is more to the videos”, a statement on the Department of Defense website said.

“After a thorough review, the department has determined that the authorized release of these unclassified videos does not reveal any sensitive capabilities or systems, and does not impinge on any subsequent investigations of military air space incursions by unidentified aerial phenomena,” the statement said.

The videos had been “circulating in the public domain after unauthorized releases in 2007 and 2017”, the statement said, adding that “the aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified’”.

The three videos show what the pilots saw during training flights in 2004 and 2015. Two of the videos were published by the New York Times in 2017. The other video was released by the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science group, a media and private science organization.

The 2004 video shows an incident that happened 100 miles out over the Pacific, according to the New York Times. Two navy fighter pilots found an oblong object hovering above the water. It then flew quickly away. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” one of pilots, Cmdr David Fravor, told the NYT.

The 2015 videos show objects moving quickly through the sky, one of them seeming to spin in the air. “Look at that thing, dude!” a pilot says. “It’s rotating!”

The release of the videos by the Pentagon adds to the legitimacy of the videos and will spur more speculation that humans have recently interacted with extraterrestrials. The navy has guidelines for reporting UFO sightings.

In response, the former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, from Nevada, tweeted the three videos “only scratches the surface of research and materials available”.

Discussion about the videos and extraterrestrials have persisted throughout the upper echelons of American politics in recent years. During the earlier half of the 2016 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton said if elected president she would release files on potential UFO sightings. Her campaign chairman, John Podesta, has displayed an interest in the subject as well.

Last June, Donald Trump fueled a new round of discussion in political circles about extraterrestrials when he said he had been briefed on sightings of unidentified aircraft by US navy pilots.

“I think it’s probably – I want them to think whatever they think,” Trump said to ABC News. “They do say, and I’ve seen, and I’ve read, and I’ve heard. And I did have one very brief meeting on it. But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particular.”

In September an internet hoax resulted in 75 people arriving at Area 51 – the infamous secret military facility in the Nevada desert that is rumored to house evidence of extraterrestrials – in a project to storm the base to hunt for evidence of aliens.


African Americans bear the brunt of Covid-19’s economic impact

African Americans bear the brunt of Covid-19’s economic impact
Pandemic spotlights racial disparities, with black workers expected to feature disproportionately in the 26m recent unemployment claims
By Lauren Arataniand Dominic Rushe
Apr 28 2020

Just two months ago in the Cabinet Room of the White House, sitting at a table surrounded by a handful of his black supporters, Donald Trump once again praised his job creation record. “Black people right now are having the best, statistically, the best numbers that you’ve ever had, and it’s really an honor,” he said. “Nobody has done more for black people than I have. Nobody has done more.”

That was 27 February and Trump was also still claiming he had done an “incredible job” with the looming coronavirus pandemic. Now the virus has led 26 million Americans to file for unemployment. While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics will not release unemployment figures broken down by race until the beginning of next month, economists are certain that black Americans are suffering the brunt of Covid-19’s economic impact and will probably suffer the most dramatic consequences of the looming recession.

Even before Covid-19 hit the US in full force and as the overall unemployment rate hit record lows, black Americans had an unemployment rate that was almost twice the national rate.

In February 2020 when the overall unemployment rate was 3.5%, a 50-year-low, the black unemployment rate was 5.8%. The white unemployment rate was 3.1%.

“The usual relationship that we see between the national unemployment rate and the black unemployment rate is typically really close to a two to one,” said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy.

“Whatever is being projected for the national unemployment rate, in most instances, we expect to see something close to twice that for black Americans.”

This was true for unemployment figures during the Great Recession. The overall unemployment rate peaked at 9.6% in 2010. For black Americans, it was 16%.

William Rodgers, former chief economist at the US Department of Labor, has estimated that the real unemployment rate for African Americans may have reached 19% in March.

“The reason why African Americans bear the brunt of downturns more is that when firing decisions start to occur the least educated and those with the least experience tend to be let go first. There is also continued discrimination in the workplace,” Rodgers said.

Economists who focus on race have long said that this “last hired, first fired” phenomenon dramatically affects black Americans more than any other group in the US due to the country’s history of racism and segregation of black Americans in the work sector.

Workers of color, particularly black Americans, have long been overrepresentedin the lowest-paying service and domestic occupations, such as taxi drivers and restaurant servers. Working in these fields leads to lower wages – black Americans have the lowest median wage of any racial group in the US – and the jobs are often seen as the most expendable during an economic downturn.

Those who got to keep their jobs during the last recession saw little relief even after the recession’s recovery period. Even with a low unemployment rate, wage growth for low-wage workers, especially for black workers, has been slow. Black Americans have seen the slowest wage growth compared with other groups of Americans, reaching a growth rate that was four times slower at certain wage distribution levels, according to a 2018 Economic Policy Institute report.

“Even though overall on aggregate we were in a better position, many of the underlying weaknesses of our economy were still there – inequality both on class and race,” Wilson said.

Low wages have a ripple effect on a family’s ability to save money and build wealth.

For Yolanda Murray of Detroit, Michigan, not having savings meant weeks of panic trying to figure out how she was going to pay the bills that came on 1 April after she was furloughed from her job at a hotel.

“You got the rent, the bills, you got the car insurance, you got groceries and disinfectant supplies … It’s like how am I going to maintain all of this?” Murray said. Weeks after she filed her application for unemployment insurance, payments started coming in and Murray was able to pay her bills again.

But Murray has long-term concerns about what an upcoming recession could mean for her. Just a year and a half ago, in October 2018, Murray and her unionized co-workers spent 28 days striking for higher wages and better healthcare. At the time, workers at the hotel had not had wage rises since before the last recession, and healthcare costs were so expensive that Murray could only afford to cover herself, leaving her two children out of her plan.

The workers reached a deal with the hotel, and she was able to get her children under her healthcare plan, but Murray is worried about what an economic downturn would mean for her and her co-workers. “I just don’t want to see us go backwards right now,” she said.

Trump’s repeated claims that he has been the best president for African Americans was repeatedly pegged to falling unemployment numbers. But those numbers only tell a partial story, as work by Rodgers and others has shown.

Black families are especially vulnerable to economic downturns because they lack the savings that can act as a buffer against unexpected layoffs or lost wages. And during the last recovery they lost ground against their white peers.

The median net worth of black families is $17,600, compared with $171,000 for white families. A white family is likely to have $10 for every $1 a black family has. The percentage of black families that have a net worth at or below zero dollars is 10 points higher than the percentage of white families in the same financial situation – 19% compared with 9%, respectively. And the black homeownership rate is the lowest of any racial group in the US and has consistently been about 30% lower than the white homeownership rate over the years, even as the economy was getting stronger.

“Wealth allows you to respond to that unexpected health emergency, that broken hole in the tire you have to replace. It also allows you to buy a home, put your kids through school,” said Danyelle Solomon, vice-president of the race and ethnicity program at the Center for American Progress.

Having less wealth also has some dire health consequences. Experts agree that being poor has costly effects on a person’s health: for adults living in extreme poverty, being poor can cost up to 15 years of life expectancy.


The Secret Group of Scientists and Billionaires Pushing a Manhattan Project for Covid-19

The Secret Group of Scientists and Billionaires Pushing a Manhattan Project for Covid-19
They are working to cull the world’s most promising research on the pandemic, passing on their findings to policy makers and the White House
By Rob Copeland
Apr 27 2020

A dozen of America’s top scientists and a collection of billionaires and industry titans say they have the answer to the coronavirus pandemic, and they found a backdoor to deliver their plan to the White House.

The eclectic group is led by a 33-year-old physician-turned-venture capitalist, Tom Cahill, who lives far from the public eye in a one-bedroom rental near Boston’s Fenway Park. He owns just one suit, but he has enough lofty connections to influence government decisions in the war against Covid-19.

These scientists and their backers describe their work as a lockdown-era Manhattan Project, a nod to the World War II group of scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb. This time around, the scientists are marshaling brains and money to distill unorthodox ideas gleaned from around the globe.

They call themselves Scientists to Stop Covid-19, and they include chemical biologists, an immunobiologist, a neurobiologist, a chronobiologist, an oncologist, a gastroenterologist, an epidemiologist and a nuclear scientist. Of the scientists at the center of the project, biologist Michael Rosbash, a 2017 Nobel Prize winner, said, “There’s no question that I’m the least qualified.” 

This group, whose work hasn’t been previously reported, has acted as the go-between for pharmaceutical companies looking for a reputable link to Trump administration decision makers. They are working remotely as an ad hoc review board for the flood of research on the coronavirus, weeding out flawed studies before they reach policy makers.

The group has compiled a confidential 17-page report that calls for a number of unorthodox methods against the virus. One big idea is treating patients with powerful drugs previously used against Ebola, with far heftier dosages than have been tried in the past.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have already implemented specific recommendations, such as slashing manufacturing regulations and requirements for specific coronavirus drugs.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told people this month that he agreed with most of the recommendations in the report, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter. The report was delivered to cabinet members and Vice President Mike Pence, head of the administration’s coronavirus task force.

Dr. Cahill’s primary asset is a young lifetime of connections through his investment firm. They include such billionaires as Peter Thiel, Jim Palotta and Michael Milken—financiers who afforded him the legitimacy to reach officials in the middle of the crisis. Dr. Cahill and his group have frequently advised Nick Ayers, Mr. Pence’s longtime aide, and agency heads through phone calls over the past month. 

No one involved with the group stands to gain financially. They say they are motivated by the chance to add their own connections and levelheaded science to a coronavirus battle effort that has, on both state and federal levels, been strained.

“We may fail,” said Stuart Schreiber, a Harvard University chemist and a member of the group. “But if it succeeds, it could change the world.”

Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics and the co-chairman of Bain Capital—as well as one of Dr. Cahill’s investors—helped copy edit drafts of their report, and he passed a version to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive David Solomon. Mr. Solomon got it to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The group’s members say they are aware that many of their ideas may not be implemented, and could be ignored altogether by the Trump administration. 

This account is based on interviews with scientists, businesspeople, government officials, as well as a review of related documents.

Break out

Only two years ago, Dr. Cahill was studying for his M.D. and PhD. at Duke University, conducting research on rare genetic diseases and wearing $20Costco slacks. He assumed he would continue the work after graduation.

Instead, he reconnected with a friend who introduced him to a job at his father’s company, the blue-chip investment firm the Raptor Group. 

Dr. Cahill got hooked on investing, particularly in life sciences. He reasoned he could make a bigger impact by identifying promising scientists and helping them troubleshoot problems—both scientific and financial—than doing research himself.

After a stint at Raptor, he formed his own fund, Newpath Partners, with $125 million from a small group of wealthy investors, including Silicon Valley stalwart Mr. Thiel and private-equity founders like Mr. Pagliuca. They were attracted to his blunt approach, as well as his interest in tackling intractable problems.

In early March, as the Covid-19 death toll mounted, Dr. Cahill was intrigued and a little depressed with the state of research on the virus. “Science and medicine were the furthest things removed from everything happening,” he said.

His investors peppered him with questions about the virus, and he organized a conference call to share some against-the-grain ideas on how to accelerate drug development and the like. He expected about 20 people. 

When Dr. Cahill tried to dial in the meeting, he was rejected because the call had reached capacity. Then his cellphone buzzed from a New York number. It was National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver. He, too, wanted the meeting’s access code. Dr. Cahill later gave him a personal briefing.

Newpath’s deep-pocketed investor base had spread word of the call, and hundreds of people were on the line, most of whom he had never met, including Mr. Milken.

When he finally got on the call, Dr. Cahill took a deep breath and said he had been working with friends to whittle down potential Covid-19 treatments to the most promising. He said he largely dropped his investing work to focus on a hunt for a cure.

After an hour, he hung up and found his email inbox full of ideas and offers to help, including from Mr. Milken’s team. “For the 50 years I’ve been involved in medical research I have never seen collaboration as we have today,” Mr. Milken said.

Dr. Cahill received a handful of notes from advisers to the vice president. They also had been on the call. 

The scientist-investor had gained a platform. All he needed was a plan.

Tracing contacts

One of Dr. Cahill’s first calls was to Mr. Schreiber, a founder of several private companies.

Mr. Schreiber looped in a longtime friend, Edward Scolnick, former head of research and development at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., where he helped develop 28 new drugs and vaccines. Dr. Scolnick was blunt: A vaccine would take at least 18 months to hit the market under normal circumstances, he told Mr. Schreiber, “if you’re damn lucky.”

Mr. Schreiber responded, “What about six months?”

The team drew up a list of roughly two dozen companies that could benefit from their recommendations and pledged to sell any shares in them immediately. One early member said he couldn’t and was kicked out.

Much of the early work involved divvying up hundreds of scientific papers on the crisis from around the world. They separated promising ideas from dubious ones. Each member blazed through as many as 20 papers a day, around 10 times the pace they would in their day jobs. They gathered to debate via videoconference, text messages—“like a bunch of teenagers,” Mr. Rosbash said—and phone calls. 

Personal hygiene went by the wayside. Michael Lin, a Stanford University neurobiologist, began disabling the camera on his phone to protect his vanity. “A couple of days, I’ve had seven or eight Zoom meetings, which will itself I’m sure cause some kind of disease,” joked David Liu, a Harvard University chemical biologist.

Debates haven’t always been purely science. The group discussed, for instance, whether to suggest that public-health authorities rename the virus “SARS-2,” after the 2003 China animal virus. To them, the name sounded scarier and might get more people to wear face masks. They dropped it.

The team pledged to try to block out politics—not an easy task in the noise and fury of a presidential election year.

Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug promoted by the president, was dismissed after the group’s resident expert, Ben Cravatt of Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., determined it was a long shot at best. The drug received only a passing mention in the group’s final report.