Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 December 2021

A Manhattan Project for Covid


The emergence and rapid global spread of Omicron poses a practical question. Can our nation—and/or our species—mount an extraordinary collective effort when the enemy isn’t another human tribe?

Science-fiction writers have speculated that only an invasion by space aliens could get our contentious tribes to stop fighting and cooperate for the common good. But something awfully similar is going on right now. A non-human agent called SARS-CoV-2 is attacking our entire human species at once.

We don’t think it came from outer space, but it’s definitely not human. And though it’s not alive in any conventional sense, it is evolving continuously to become an ever-more-potent enemy. Its rapid mutations arise to defeat our defenses almost as if it were intelligent. And it shows no sign of relenting.

To an ex-physicist like me, our collective response so far seems pathetic. My point of comparison is the Manhattan Project, which I studied with interest as a graduate student in physics. Although the Project was nationwide, not species-wide, it may have been the greatest scientific-technical crash project ever undertaken to meet a deadly threat.

Four features distinguished the Manhattan Project. First, it started as a research project, but it eventually became a military project. Legendary Army General Lesley Groves ran it under military discipline, a strict chain of command, and wartime secrecy. Although he often consulted higher authorities in the military and the White House, he ran no messy democracy. There were no committees, no demagoguery, and no endless ideological disputes. Every decision was practical, based on science, technology, and what seemed most workable.

Second, General Groves was an engineer—not a spreadsheet jockey like many of today’s so-called “industrial” leaders. He was a practical man, trained in engineering discipline and steeped in physical—not political—cause and effect. As a military leader, he didn’t have to worry about profit or patents. He was smart enough to ask the right questions of physicists and mathematicians working at and beyond the cutting edge of human knowledge. So he could, and did, direct their efforts into the most productive paths.

Third, because it was wartime, and because the Nazis were also believed to be working on a Bomb, Groves had carte blanche to commandeer the entire nation’s manpower and physical resources. According to the seminal history Lawrence and Oppenheimer, at one time the centrifuges at Oak Ridge, spinning to purify uranium, commandeered 10% of the entire nation’s electrical power. They did so while yet another group, at Hanford, Washington, worked on an entirely different path to a Bomb, using transmuted plutonium.

Both paths led to success. But along both, the entire nation devoted all its resources to reaching a single goal.

Finally, the entire Manhattan Project was conducted in strict secrecy. Most of the nation, let alone the world, had no idea what was going on until the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Unlike the Project’s first three unique features, secrecy was no boon. It made doing science and engineering like working in a straitjacket. It forced indispensable personnel to relocate to remote places like Los Alamos, and sometimes to leave their families, to work in unfamiliar and often primitive conditions. It encouraged a siloing of expertise and tasks that inhibited discussion and cooperation. Any “Manhattan Project” for Covid should have no such impediments to success because the entire effort to defeat the virus must be open, global and cooperative.

The Manhattan Project’s beneficent features—the first three—produced extraordinary success in an extraordinarily short time. The Project converted bare and highly abstruse scientific theory into reality in less than two years, eight months. On December 2, 1942, an “atomic pile” at the University of Chicago had first demonstrated a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. The first-ever nuclear explosion (“Trinity”) went off at Alamogordo on July, 16, 1945. A month later, the Project had produced enough fissile material for the two bombs that ended human history’s most terrible war.

So how does our human response to SARS-CoV-2 so far compare? On alternative paths to success, pretty well.

We are now about one month shy of two years since the first Covid-19 case in the US was identified. In that time, we have learned how to make extraordinarily effective vaccines with a “software-like” approach. We can clip out part of the viral genome that cannot cause disease. Then we can get our own cells to manufacture it, so that our immune systems make antibodies and mount T-cell defenses against it. (This approach worked so quickly because it had been under general development in research laboratories for a decade before the pandemic.)

Two different firms, Pfizer (with BioNTech) and Moderna, have reached that end. Each took a different path, but both used similar means. As both have announced, their similar methods are capable, on an abbreviated time scale, of producing vaccines against evolutionary variants of the virus like Omicron.

Similarly, we have taken two different paths toward treatment once the disease sets in. Regeneron uses conventional monoclonal antibodies for in-hospital blood-infusion therapy. Pfizer has apparently used something similar to its “software like” approach for vaccines: it has developed a pill with molecules that survive human digestion enough to attack a particular part of the viral genome. Each approach can be applied to viral variants like Omicron, at least in theory.

So now we’ve turned bare theory into practice. Continuing the Manhattan-Project analogy, we are somewhere between having run the first atomic “pile” and having demonstrated the first nuclear explosion. But the analogy is incomplete, and always will be, because viral evolution and mutation keep moving the goal posts.

Our main problem now is not science, or even biotech engineering. It’s planning and production. It’s adapting proven science and technology to new viral variants like Omicron.

If nothing else, the last two years should have taught us that our microscopic enemy is global and a changeling. The virus started in China. The Delta variant (we think) originated in India. Omicron came from South Africa. Now Delta and Omicron are expanding exponentially worldwide.

The lessons are simple but profound. Deadly new variants can arise anywhere; so no one is safe until we all are safe, everywhere. New variants that develop in neglected places can spread worldwide, in days or weeks, exploiting airplanes as highly efficient disease vectors.

So we have an almost precise analogy to War of the Worlds and Independence Day, but for one thing. Our enemy doesn’t come from outer space, but from microbial evolution right here on Earth. Science-fiction aficionados will appreciate the irony, as they recalled how microbes saved our human species in War of the Worlds.

Yes, the planning and production task is wider, bigger and harder than producing a couple of new-technology bombs. But if we want to beat this virus, we have to undertake it with the priority, dedication and focus of a Manhattan Project. We have no choice.

Here’s what we need to do, all ASAP:

    1. Forget about intellectual property (IP), at least for the time being. Fighting a changeling global pandemic is no task for bean counters. Put the patents into abeyance and keep careful records, but let the crucial work go on unimpeded by lawyers, whether for contracts or for litigation.

    Push the work as if to preserve life itself—which is the goal, both literally and economically. Then settle up later. We can argue about the rules for settling up while we save our species.

    (I write this as someone who taught IP as a law professor for 28 years, and who proselytized IP and its economic benefits in Asia. Which is more important, life or profits?)

    2. Use every means to extend and propagate the four methods that we know now: (a) Pfizer’s means of making vaccines from parts of the viral genome; (b) Moderna’s similar means; (c) Regeneron’s similar method of making monoclonal antibodies; and (d) Pfizer’s similar means of making virus-specific therapeutic pills. All these methods are crucial to beating this virus, as well as likely future viral pandemics. All can be adapted to new variants and perhaps new viruses entirely. Spend generously on research to make all these methods simpler, cheaper, and more quickly adaptable to new variants.

    3. Set up gigafactories in every country capable of using, supporting and extending these methods. Set up at least one gigafactory in every highly populated region on every continent. Let each have or produce: (a) genetic sequencing and editing equipment, of the latest and most efficient designs; (b) systems and production lines for sequencing new viral variants and producing vaccines and therapies that target them; (c) any necessary auxiliary equipment, such as containers for shipping chilled Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

    4. Let these production facilities begin to work on vaccines and therapies for new variants as soon as they are discovered, even before their precise threat is known. If we had done this with Omicron, we would be weeks into an Omicron-specific vaccine right now. If a new variant turns out to be less dangerous than feared, the interim research will not be wasted: it will help us hone our ability to make vaccines and therapies quickly for future new variants.

    5. Recruit and, if necessary, draft the experts needed to get these organizations going ASAP, including scientists, engineers and postdoctoral biotech researchers, especially young and creative ones. Use the old Peace Corps as a model. Without creating a new draft, the project might attract young, idealistic biotech workers and serve as an alternative to military service. Why work unwillingly on biological weapons when you can use your knowledge and skills willingly to save humanity?

    6. Vastly increase support for biotech research relating to viruses, especially leading-edge research. Start with the recent discovery, by Koichi Kobayashi and his team, of a SARS-CoV-2 immunosuppressive gene that may underlie the virus’ continuing potency. Make sure every gigafactory has at least few people working on defeating that gene.

“Free markets” won’t do all this organizing on their own. They will impede it. By the time the lawyers and spreadsheet jockeys get through applying for and prosecuting their patents and demanding and negotiating their profits, another two or three delta-like or omicron-like variants will have assailed us.

Patents may fill private firms’ coffers, but they won’t save the day. Prosecuting patents and negotiating licenses under them can be among the slowest processes in modern business.

Two things slow these processes even further. First, in cutting-edge technology, the potential uses and economic values of patents are, in general, unknown. Second, the process of negotiation gets exponentially slower as a biotech solution involves a number of independently discovered genes. So I showed mathematically in one of my last academic publications. If every newly discovered viral gene or its method of use is controlled by a patent, the cost and delay of biotech research, let alone its application, will rise exponentially.

What we need instead is another Manhattan Project. We need practical people like engineers and scientists, and maybe a brilliant autocrat like Lesley Groves, focused like lasers on deciphering new viral variants and adapting cutting-edge science and technology to defeat them as quickly as possible. If we can’t mount this effort using the current Defense Production Act, we should amend it for that purpose.

The US may be in decline, both as an economic power and as a democracy. But our biotech research and development remain fields of global supremacy. And if you include our long-ago enemies, Germany and Japan, biotech research in this triad of democracies has clear global dominance. (Kobayashi’s path-breaking research was a collaboration between his own Texas A&M University College of Medicine and Hokkaido University in Japan. Pfizer’s development of its vaccine involved cooperation between its American and German divisions and the German firm BioNTech.)

It’s time for all nations, and especially these three, to apply their collective scientific and productive leadership to saving our species, now and against future pandemics. Doing so will require a global all-hands-on-deck approach, analogous to the Manhattan Project, that patent and profit pusillanimity can never achieve.

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