Scientists and billionaires drive 'Manhattan Project' seeking to combat Covid-19

Scientists to Stop Covid-19 are marshalling brains and money to distil unorthodox ideas.
Scientists to Stop Covid-19 are marshalling brains and money to distil unorthodox ideas.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - A group of top American scientists backed by billionaires and industry titans says it has the answer to the coronavirus pandemic, and has delivered a report to the White House through backdoor channels.

The scientists compiled a confidential 17-page report that suggests a number of unorthodox measures to combat the coronavirus, including the use of powerful drugs that were intended to be used against Ebola in far heftier doses than tried in the past, reported The Wall Street Journal. 

Specific recommendations made by the group, such as slashing manufacturing regulations and requirements for specific coronavirus drugs, have already been implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Calling themselves Scientists to Stop Covid-19, the group of a dozen scientists - including chemical biologists, an immunobiologist, a neurobiologist, a chronobiologist, an oncologist, a gastroenterologist, an epidemiologist and a nuclear scientist - are marshalling brains and money to distil unorthodox ideas from around the globe.

They have described their work as a lockdown-era Manhattan Project - a reference to the World War II scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb - and are led by a 33-year-old physician-turned-venture capitalist, Dr Tom Cahill.

Living in a one-bedroom rental apartment near Boston's Fenway Park, Dr Cahill owns just one suit, but has enough lofty connections to influence government decision-making in the war against the coronavirus.

Of the other scientists at the centre of the project, biologist Michael Rosbash, a 2017 Nobel Prize winner, said, "There's no question that I'm the least qualified."

The group has helped pharmaceutical companies establish a link to Trump administration decision makers. Its members also acted as an ad hoc review board for research on the coronavirus, rejecting flawed studies before they reach policymakers.

The director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr Francis Collins, told people this month that he agreed with most of the report's recommendations, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter.

The report was delivered to Vice-President Mike Pence, the head of the Trump administration's coronavirus taskforce, and Cabinet members.

Dr Cahill's connections come through his investment firm and include billionaires such as Mr Peter Thiel, Mr Jim Palotta and Mr Michael Milken, who enabled him to reach officials in the middle of the crisis.

Mr Nick Ayers, Mr Pence's long-time aide, has been frequently advised by the group of scientists, as have agency heads through phone calls over the past month.

The scientists say they are motivated by the chance to add their own connections and science to the coronavirus battle, with none of them gaining financially.

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

The co-owner of the Boston Celtics and co-chairman of Bain Capital, Mr Steve Pagliuca - who is also one of Dr Cahill's investors - helped copy-edit drafts of the report and passed it on to Goldman Sachs Group Inc Chief Executive David Solomon, who in turn passed it on to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The scientists says they are aware that their recommendations may be ignored by the Trump administration.

Group origins

Just two years ago, Dr Cahill was studying for his MD and PhD at Duke University, conducting research on rare genetic diseases. But after graduation, a friend introduced him to a job at his father's blue-chip investment firm Raptor Group.

After a stint at Raptor, Dr Cahill formed his own fund, Newpath Partners, with US$125 million (S$177.14 million) from a small group of wealthy investors, including Silicon Valley stalwart Mr Thiel and private equity founders like Mr Pagliuca.

In early March, as the coronavirus death toll mounted, Dr Cahill's investors peppered him with questions about the virus and he organised a conference call to share some against-the-grain ideas on how to accelerate drug development, among other things.

But while Dr Cahill expected about 20 people, when he tried to dial into the meeting, he was rejected because the call was at capacity, with hundreds of people on the line, including Mr Milken.

Dr Cahill then received a call from National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, who also wanted to participate in the meeting. Dr Cahill later gave him a personal briefing.

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

After hanging up an hour later, Dr Cahill found his e-mail 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.

In addition, Dr Cahill received notes from advisers to the Vice-President, who had also been on the call.

Tracing contacts

One of the first people Dr Cahill called was Mr Schreiber, the founder of several private companies.

Mr Screiber looped in a long-time friend, Mr Edward Scolnick, the former head of research and development at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co, who said that a vaccine would take 18 months to hit the market "if you're damn lucky". Mr Screiber said, "What about six months?"

The team of scientists drew up a list of roughly two dozen companies that could benefit from their recommendations and pledged to sell any stocks they held in them immediately. One early member refused and was kicked out.

Much of the early work involved parsing through hundreds of scientific papers from around the world and separating promising ideas from dubious ones. Each member went through as many as 20 papers in a day and gathered to debate via video conference, text messages and phone calls.

Dr 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 Dr David Liu, a Harvard University chemical biologist.

The debates weren't always purely science, with the group at one point considering whether to recommend that the virus be renamed "Sars-2" after the 2003 China animal virus. The idea was dropped.

The team also pledged to avoid politics in an election year. Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug promoted by the President, received only a passing mention in the final report.

The group also disparaged the idea of antibody testing to allow people back to work. Dr Cravatt, a chemial biologist, called it the "worst idea I've ever heard", pointing out that prior exposure may not prevent people from giving the virus to others. There were also concerns that people might intentionally infect themselves to obtain a clean bill of health later.

The groups initial recommendations in the report centre on the government's response. One suggestion was to buy medicines not yet proven effective as a way to encourage manufacturers to ramp up production . Another was to slash the time required for a clinical review of new drugs to a week from up to a year at present.

An introduction

In order to get the recommendations to the right people in the Trump administration, Dr Cahill tapped Mr Brian Sheth, co-founder of private-equity firm Vista Equity Partners, and a Democrat.

Mr Sheth was friendly with Mr Thomas Hicks Jr, the Dallas businessman and co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr Sheth introduced Mr Hicks to Dr Cahill's group. That connection clinched ties between the group of scientists from left-leaning institutions and a Republican stalwart who hunts birds with Mr Donald Trump Jr.

In his first chat with the group, Mr Hicks said, "I'm not a scientist. Make it clear enough for me, and then tell me where the red tape is."

One major concern was the FDA, which required a month-long wait for approval of a proposal that identified monoclonal antibody drugs as the most promising treatment, which would involve drugmaker Regeneron Phamaceuticals Inc shifting its existing manufacturing facilities to Ireland in order to make the medicine in sufficient quantities.

Mr Scolnick attempted to convince bureaucrats, bu the effort ended poorly, prompting one scientist to remark of the FDA: "They're the problem here."

Dr Cahill then called the vice-president's aide, Mr Ayers. That same evening, Regeneron received FDA approval to immediately shift production to Dublin.

"That was proof positive that what we were doing was starting to work," Mr Rosbash said.

Inroads were also made within the Veteran's Association, the largest healthcare system in the US. The scientists convinced the VA's chief medical officer and security on the need to allow veterans with Covid-19 to join existing studies in areas such as prostate cancer, with a view to see if already-approved drugs might be efective.

The team is also looking to develop a plan for reopening the United States. Their ideas include development of a saliva test and the scheduling of tests at the end of the workday so that results would be available by morning.

They also suggested a nationwide smartphone app that requires residents to confirm each day that they don't have any symptoms associated with the coronavirus, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Group members have continued their discussions with administration officials in recent days, hoping their confidential plan turns to action.

"We need the entire nation - government, business and science - to unite to defeat this," Mr Pagliuca said.