I am happy to announce the first cohort of Emergent Ventures prize winners for their work fighting the coronavirus. Here is a repeat of the original prize announcement, and one week or so later I am delighted there are four strong winners, with likely some others on the way. Again, this part of Emergent Ventures comes to you courtesy of the Mercatus Center and George Mason University. Here is the list of winners:
Dr. Helen Y. Chu, an infectious disease expert in Seattle, knew that the United States did not have much time…
As luck would have it, Dr. Chu had a way to monitor the region. For months, as part of a research project into the flu, she and a team of researchers had been collecting nasal swabs from residents experiencing symptoms throughout the Puget Sound region.
To repurpose the tests for monitoring the coronavirus, they would need the support of state and federal officials. But nearly everywhere Dr. Chu turned, officials repeatedly rejected the idea, interviews and emails show, even as weeks crawled by and outbreaks emerged in countries outside of China, where the infection began.
By Feb. 25, Dr. Chu and her colleagues could not bear to wait any longer. They began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval.
What came back confirmed their worst fear. They quickly had a positive test from a local teenager with no recent travel history. The coronavirus had already established itself on American soil without anybody realizing it.
And to think Helen is only an assistant professor.
Data gathering and presentation prize: Avi Schiffmann
Here is a good write-up on Avi Schiffmann, excerpt:
A self-taught computer maven from Seattle, Avi Schiffmann uses web scraping technology to accurately report on developing pandemic, while fighting misinformation and panic.
Avi started doing this work in December, remarkable prescience, and he is only 17 years old. Here is a good interview with him:
I’d like to be the next Avi Schiffmann and make the next really big thing that will change everything.
Here is Avi’s website, ncov2019.live/data.
Prize for good policy thinking: The Imperial College researchers, led by Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist.
Neil and his team calculated numerically what the basic options and policy trade-offs were in the coronavirus space. Even those who disagree with parts of their model are using it as a basic framework for discussion. Here is their core paper.
The Financial Times referred to it as “The shocking coronavirus study that rocked the UK and US…Five charts highlight why Imperial College’s research radically changed government policy.”
The New York Times reported “White House Takes New Line After Dire Report on Death Toll.” Again, referring to the Imperial study.
Note that Neil is working on despite having coronavirus symptoms. His earlier actions were heroic too:
Ferguson has taken a lead, advising ministers and explaining his predictions in newspapers and on TV and radio, because he is that valuable thing, a good scientist who is also a good communicator.
He is a workaholic, according to his colleague Christl Donnelly, a professor of statistical epidemiology based at Oxford University most of the time, as well as at Imperial. “He works harder than anyone I have ever met,” she said. “He is simultaneously attending very large numbers of meetings while running the group from an organisational point of view and doing programming himself. Any one of those things could take somebody their full time.
“One of his friends said he should slow down – this is a marathon not a sprint. He said he is going to do the marathon at sprint speed. It is not just work ethic – it is also energy. He seems to be able to keep going. He must sleep a bit, but I think not much.”
Prize for rapid speedy response: Curative, Inc. (legal name Snap Genomics, based in Silicon Valley)
Originally a sepsis diagnostics company, they very rapidly repositioned their staff and laboratories to scale up COVID-19 testing. They also acted rapidly, early, and pro-actively to round up the necessary materials for such testing, and they are currently churning out a high number of usable test kits each day, with that number rising rapidly. The company is also working on identifying which are the individuals most like to spread the disease and getting them tested first. here is some of their progress from yesterday.
Testing and data are so important in this area.
General remarks and thanks: I wish to thank both the founding donor and all of you who have subsequently made very generous donations to this venture. If you are a person of means and in a position to make a donation to enable this work to go further, with more prizes and better funded prizes, please do email me.