Lex Fridman Podcast - #146 - Michael Mina Rapid Testing, Viruses, and the Engineering Mindset

The following is a conversation with Michael Mina.

He’s a professor at Harvard doing research

on infectious disease and immunology.

The most defining characteristic of his approach

to science and biology is that of a first principles thinker

and engineer focused not just on defining the problem,

but finding the solution.

In that spirit, we talk about cheap rapid at home testing,

which is a solution to COVID 19 that to me has become

one of the most obvious, powerful, and doable solutions

that frankly should have been done months ago

and still should be done now.

As we talk about its accuracy,

it’s high for detecting actual contagiousness

and hundreds of millions can be manufactured quickly

and relatively cheaply.

In general, I love engineering solutions like these

even if government bureaucracies often don’t.

It respects science and data, it respects our freedom,

it respects our intelligence and basic common sense.

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As a side note, let me say that

I’ve always been solution oriented, not problem oriented.

It saddens me to see that public discourse

disproportionately focuses on the mistakes

of those who dare to build solutions

rather than applaud their attempt to do so.

Teddy Roosevelt said it well

in his The Man in the Arena speech over 100 years ago.

I should say that both the critic

and the creator are important,

but in my humble estimation,

there are too many now of the former

and not enough of the latter.

So while we spread the derisive words

of the critic on social media, making it viral,

let’s not forget that this world is built

on the blood, sweat, and tears of those who dare to create.

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or connect with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman.

And now, here’s my conversation with Michael Minna.

What is the most beautiful, mysterious,

or surprising idea in the biology of humans or viruses

that you’ve ever come across in your work?

Sorry for the overly philosophical question.

Wow, well that’s a great question.

You know, I love the pathogenesis of viruses,

and one of the things that I’ve worked on a lot

is trying to understand how viruses interact with each other.

And so pre all this COVID stuff,

I was really, really dedicated to understanding

how viruses impact other pathogens,

so how if somebody gets an infection with one thing

or a vaccine, does it either benefit or harm you

from other things that appear to be unrelated to most people.

And so one system which is highly detrimental to humans,

but what I think is just immensely fascinating, is measles.

And measles gets into a kid’s body.

The immune system picks it up,

and essentially grabs the virus,

and does exactly what it’s supposed to do,

which is to take this virus

and bring it into the immune system

so that the immune system can learn from it,

can develop an immune response to it.

But instead, measles plays a trick.

It gets into the immune system,

serves almost as a Trojan horse,

and instead of getting eaten by these cells,

it just takes them over,

and it ends up proliferating in the very cells

that were supposed to kill it.

And it just distributes throughout the entire body,

gets into the bone marrow,

kills off children’s immune memories.

And so it essentially, what I’ve found

and what my research has found is that this one virus

was responsible for as much as half

of all of the infectious disease deaths in kids

before we started vaccinating against it,

because it was just wiping out children’s immune memories

to all different pathogens,

which is, I think, just astounding.

It’s just amazing to watch it spread throughout bodies.

We’ve done the studies in monkeys,

and you can watch it just destroy

and obliterate people’s immune memories

in the same way that some parasite

might destroy somebody’s brain.

Is that evolutionary just coincidence,

or is there some kind of advantage

to this kind of interactivity between pathogens?

Oh, I think in that sense, it’s just coincidence.

It probably is a, it’s a good way for measles to,

it’s a good way for measles to essentially

be able to survive long enough to replicate in the body.

It just replicates in the cells

that are meant to destroy it.

So it’s utilizing our immune cells for its own replication,

but in so doing, it’s destroying the memories

of all the other immunological memories.

But there are other viruses,

so a different system is influenza,

and flu predisposes to severe bacterial infections.

And that, I think, is another coincidence,

but I also think that there are some evolutionary benefits

that bacteria may hijack

and sort of piggyback on viral infections.

Viruses can, they just grow so much quicker than bacteria.

They replicate faster,

and so there’s this system with viruses,

with flu and bacteria,

where the influenza has these proteins

that cleave certain receptors,

and the bacteria want to cleave those same receptors.

They want to cleave the same molecules

that gave entrance to those receptors.

So instead, the bacteria found out, like,

hey, we could just piggyback on these viruses.

They’ll do it 100 or 1,000 times faster than we can.

And so then they just piggyback on,

and they let flu cleave all these sialic acids,

and then the bacteria just glom on in the wake of it.

So there’s all different interactions between pathogens

that are just remarkable.

So does this whole system of viruses

that interact with each other

and so damn good at getting inside our bodies,

does that fascinate you or terrify you?

I’m very much a scientist,

and so it fascinates me much more than it terrifies me.

But knowing enough, I know just how well,

you know, we get the wrong virus in our population,

whether it’s through some random mutation

or whether it’s this same COVID 19 virus,

and it, you know, these things are tricky.

They’re able to mutate quickly.

They’re able to find new hosts

and rearrange in the case of influenza.

So what terrifies me is just how easily

this particular pandemic could have been so much worse.

This could have been a virus

that is much worse than it is.

You know, same thing with H1N1 back in 2009.

That terrifies me.

If a virus like that was much more detrimental,

you know, that would be,

it could be much more devastating.

Although it’s hard to say, you know,

the human species were, well,

I hesitate to say that we’re good at responding to things

because there are some aspects that were,

this particular virus, SARS COVID 2 and COVID 19

has found a sweet spot where it’s not quite serious enough

on an individual level that humans just don’t,

we haven’t seen much of a useful response by many humans.

A lot of people even think it’s a hoax.

And so it’s led us down this path of,

it’s not quite serious enough

to get everyone to respond immediately

and with the most urgency, but it’s enough,

it’s bad enough that, you know,

it’s caused our economies to shut down and collapse.

And so I think I know enough about virus biology

to be terrified for humans that, you know,

it can, it just takes one virus,

just takes the wrong one to just obliterate us

or not obliterate us,

but really do much more damage than we’ve seen.

It’s fascinating to think that COVID 19

is a result of a virus evolving together with like Twitter,

like figuring out how we can sneak past the defenses

of the humans.

So it’s not bad enough.

And then the misinformation,

all that kind of stuff together is operating

in such a way that the virus can spread effectively.

I wonder, I mean, obviously a virus is not intelligent,

but there’s a rhyme and a rhythm

to the way this whole evolutionary process works

and creates these fascinating things

that spread throughout the entire civilization.

Absolutely, it’s, yeah,

I’m completely fascinated by this idea

of social media in particular,

how it replicates, how it grows.

You know, I’ve been, how it actually starts interacting

with the biology of the virus, masks,

who’s gonna get vaccinated, politics,

like these seem so external to virus biology,

but it’s become so intertwined.

And it’s interesting.

And I actually think we could find out

that the virus actually becomes,

obviously not intentionally,

but we could find that people choosing not to wear masks,

choosing not to counter this virus

in a regimented and sort of organized way,

effectively gives the virus more opportunity to escape.

We can look at vaccines.

We’re about to have

one of the most aggressive vaccination programs

the world has ever seen.

But we are unfortunately doing it

right at the peak of viral transmission

when millions and millions of people

are still getting infected.

And when we do that,

that just gives this virus so many more opportunities.

I mean, orders of magnitude more opportunity

to mutate around our immune system.

Now, if we were to vaccinate everyone

when there’s not a lot of virus,

then there’s just not a lot of virus.

And so there’s not going to be as many,

I don’t even know how many zeros are at the end

of however many viral particles

there are in the world right now,

more than quadrillions.

And so if you assume that at any given time,

somebody might have trillions of virus in them

and any given individual,

so then multiply trillions by millions

and you get a lot of viruses out there.

And if you start applying pressure, ecological pressure,

to this virus, that when it’s not abundant,

God, the opportunity for a virus to sneak around immunity,

especially when all the vaccines are identical,

essentially, it’s…

All it takes is one to mutate and then jumps.

Takes one.

Takes one in the whole world.

And we have to not forget

that this particular virus was one.

It was one opportunity and it has spread across the globe

and there’s no reason that can’t happen tomorrow anew.

It’s scary.

I have a million other questions in this direction,

but I’d love to talk about one of the most exciting aspects

of your work, which is testing or rapid testing.

You wrote a great article in Time on November 17th.

This is like a month ago about rapid testing titled,

How We Can Stop the Spread of COVID 19 by Christmas.

Let’s jot down the fact that this is a month ago.

So maybe your timeline would be different,

but let’s say in a month.

So you’ve talked about this powerful idea

for quite a while throughout the COVID 19 pandemic.

How do we stop the spread of COVID 19 in a month?

Well, we use tests like these.

So the only reason the virus continues spreading

is because people spread it to each other.

This isn’t magic.


And so there’s a few ways to stop the virus

from spreading to each other.

And that is you either can vaccinate everyone

and vaccinating everyone is a way to immunologically

prevent the virus from growing inside of somebody

and therefore spreading.

We don’t know yet actually if this vaccine,

if any of these vaccines are going to

prevent onward transmission.

So that may or may not serve to be one opportunity.

Certainly I think it will decrease transmission.

But the other idea that we have at our disposal now,

we had it in May, we had it in June,

July, August, September, October, November,

and now it’s December.

We still have it.

We still choose not to use it in this country

and in much of the world.

And that’s rapid testing.

That is giving, it’s empowering people to know

that they are infected and giving them the opportunity

to not spread it to their loved ones

and their friends and neighbors and whoever else.

We could have done this.

We still can.

Today we could start.

We have millions of these tests.

These tests are simple paper strip tests.

They are, inside of this thing

is just a little piece of paper.

Now I can actually open it up here.

There we go.

So this, this is how we do it right here.

We have this little paper strip test.

This is enough to let you know if you’re infectious.

With somewhere around the order of 99% sensitivity,

99% specificity, you can know

if you have infectious virus in you.

If we can get these out to everyone’s homes,

build these, make 10 million, 20 million,

30 million of them a day.

You know, we make more bottles of Dasani water every day.

We can make these little paper strip tests.

And if we do that and we get these into people’s homes

so that they can use them twice a week,

then we can know if we’re infectious.

You know, is it perfect?

Absolutely not.

But is it near perfect?


You know, and so if we can say,

hey, the transmission of this is, you know,

for every hundred people that get infected right now,

they go on to infect maybe 130 additional people.

And that’s exponential growth.

So a hundred becomes 130.

A couple of days later that 130 becomes

another 165 people have now been infected.

And you know, go over three weeks

and a hundred people become 500 people infected.

Now it doesn’t take much to have those hundred people

not infect 130, but infect 90.

All we have to do is remove say 30, 40% of new infections

from continuing their spread.

And then instead of exponential growth,

you have exponential decay.

So this doesn’t need to be perfect.

We don’t have to go from a hundred to zero.

We just have to go and have those hundred people infect 90

and those 90 people infect, you know, 82,

whatever it might be.

And you do that for a few weeks and boom,

you have now gone instead of a hundred to 500,

you’ve gone from a hundred to 20.

It’s not very hard.

And so the way to do that is to let people know

that they’re infectious.

I mean, we’re a perfect example right now.

This morning I used these tests to make sure

that I wasn’t infectious.

Is it perfect?

No, but it reduced my odds 99%.

I already was at extremely low odds

because I spend my life quarantining these days.

Well, the interesting thing with this test,

with the testing in general,

which is why I love what you’ve been espousing,

is it’s really confusing to me that this has not been

taken on as it’s one actual solution

that was available for a long time.

There doesn’t seem to have been solutions proposed

at a large scale and a solution that it seems

like a lot of people would be able to get behind.

There’s some politicization or fear of other solutions

that people have proposed, which is like lockdown.

And there’s a worry, you know,

especially in the American spirit of freedom,

like you can’t tell me what to do.

The thing about tests is it like empowers you

with information essentially.

So like it gives you more information about your,

like your role in this pandemic,

and then you can do whatever the hell you want.

Like it’s all up to your ethics and so on.

So like, and it’s obvious that with that information,

people would be able to protect their loved ones

and also do their sort of quote unquote duty

for their country, right?

Is protect the rest of the country.

That’s exactly right.

I mean, it’s just, it’s empowerment,

but you know, this is a problem.

We have not put these into action in large part

because we have a medical industry

that doesn’t want to see them be used.

We have a political and a regulatory industry

that doesn’t want to see them be used.

That sounds crazy.

Why wouldn’t they want them to be used?

We have a very paternalistic approach

to everything in this country.

You know, despite this country kind of being founded

on this individualistic ideal,

pull yourself up from your bootstraps, all that stuff.

When it comes to public health,

we have a bunch of ivory tower academics who want data.

They, you know, they want to see perfection.

And we have this issue of letting perfection

get in the way of actually doing something at all,

you know, doing something effective.

And so we keep comparing these tests, for example,

to the laboratory based PCR test.

And sure, this isn’t a PCR test,

but this doesn’t cost a hundred dollars

and it doesn’t take five days to get back,

which means in every single scenario,

this is the more effective test.

And we have, unfortunately, a system

that’s not about public health.

We have entirely eroded any ideals of public health

in our country for the biomedical complex,

you know, this medical industrial complex,

which overrides everything.

And that’s why, you know, I’m just,

can I swear on this pot?


I’m just so fucking pissed that these tests don’t exist.

Meanwhile, and everyone says, you know,

oh, we couldn’t make these, you know,

that we could never do it.

That would be such a hard, a difficult problem.

Meanwhile, the vaccine gets,

we have at the same time that we could have gotten

these stupid little paper strip tests out to every household,

we have developed a brand new vaccine.

We’ve gone through phase one, phase two, phase three trials.

We’ve scaled up its production.

And now we have UPS and FedEx

and all the logistics in the world,

getting freezers out to where they need to be.

We have this immense, we see when it comes to sort of

medicine, you know, something you’re injecting into somebody,

then all of a sudden people say, oh, yes we can.

But you say, oh no, that’s too simple a solution,

too cheap a solution.

No way could we possibly do that.

It’s this faulty thinking in our country,

which, you know, frankly is driven by big money, big,

you know, the only time when we actually think

that we can do something that’s maybe aggressive

and complicated is when there’s billions and billions

of billions of dollars in it, you know.

I mean, on a difficult note, because this is part

of your work from before the COVID,

it does seem that I saw a statistic currently

is that 40% would not be taken,

of Americans would not be taking the vaccine,

some number like this.

So you also have to acknowledge that all the money

that’s been invested, like there doesn’t appear

to be a solution to deal with like the fear,

distrust that people have.

I bet, I don’t know if you know this number,

but for taking a strip, like a rapid test like this,

I bet you people would say,

like the percentage of people that wouldn’t take it

is in the single digits, probably.

I completely think so.

And you know, there’s a lot of people

who don’t want to get a test today.

And that’s because it gets sent to a lab,

it gets reported, it has all this stuff.

And we’re a country which teaches people

from the time they’re babies, you know,

to keep their medical data close to them.

We have HIPAA, we have all these,

we have immense rules and regulations

to ensure the privacy of people’s medical data.

And then a pandemic comes around

and we just assume that the average person

is gonna wipe all that away and say,

oh no, I’m happy giving out not just my own medical data,

but also to tell the authorities,

everyone who I’ve spent my time with,

so that they all get a call and are pissed at me

for giving up their names.

You know, so people aren’t getting tested

and they’re definitely not giving up their contacts

when it comes to contact tracing.

And so for so many reasons, that approach is failing.

Not to even mention the delays in testing

and things like that.

And so this is a whole different approach,

but it’s an approach that empowers people

and takes the power a bit away from the people in charge.

You know, and that’s what’s really grating on,

I think, public health officials who say,

no, we need the data.

So they’re effectively saying, if I can’t have the data,

I don’t want the individuals,

I don’t want the public to have their own data either.

Which is a terrible approach to a pandemic

where we can’t solve a public health crisis

without actively engaging the public.

It just doesn’t work.

And you know, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now,

which is a terrible approach.

So first of all, there’s a,

you have a really nice informative website,

rapidtest.org, with information on this.

I still can’t believe this is not more popular.

It’s ridiculous.

Okay, but our, one of the FAQs you have

is a rapid test too expensive.

So can cost be brought down?

Like I pay, I take a weekly PCR test

and I think I pay 160, 170 bucks a week.

No, I mean, it’s criminal.

Absolutely we can get costs.

This thing right here costs less than a dollar to make.

With everything combined, plus the swabs,

you know, maybe it costs a dollar 50.

Could be sold for, frankly, it could be sold for $3

and still make a profit if they wanna sell it for five.

This one here, this is a slightly more complicated one,

but you can see it’s just got

the exact same paper strip inside.

And this is really, it doesn’t look like much,

but it’s kind of the cream of the crop

in terms of these rapid tests.

This is the one that the US government bought

and it is doing an amazing job.

It has a 99.9% sensitivity and specificity.

So it’s really, it’s really good.

And so essentially the way it works is you just,

you use a swab, you put the,

once you kind of use a swab on yourself,

you put the swab into these little holes here.

You put some buffer on it and you close it

and a line will show up if it’s positive

and a line won’t show up if it’s negative.

It takes five, 10 minutes.

This whole thing, this can be made so cheap

that the US government was able to buy them,

buy 150 million of them from Abbott for $5 a piece.

So anyone who says that these are expensive,

we have the proof is right here.

This one at its, Abbott did not lose money on this deal.

They got $750 million for selling 150 million of these

at five bucks a piece.

All of these tests can do the same.

So anyone who says that these should be,

unfortunately what’s happening though

is the FDA is only authorizing

all of these tests as medical devices.

So what happens when you, if I’m a medical company,

if I’m a test production company

and I wanna make this test and I go through

and the FDA at the end of my authorization,

the FDA says, okay, you now have a medical device,

not a public health tool, but a medical device.

And that affords you the ability to charge

insurance companies for it.

Why would I ever as a, you know,

in our capitalistic economy and sort of infrastructure,

why would I ever not sell this for $30

when insurance will pay for it or $100?

You know, it might only cost me 50 cents to make,

but by pushing all of these tests through a medical pathway

at the FDA, what extrudes out the other side

is an expensive medical device that’s erroneously expensive.

It doesn’t need to be inflated in cost,

but the companies say, well, I’d rather make fewer of them

and just sell them all for $30 a piece

than make tens of millions of them, which I could do,

and sell them at a dollar marginal profit.

And so it’s a problem with our whole medical industry

that we see tests only as medical devices

and what I would like to see is for the government

in the same way that they bought 150 million of these

from Abbott, they should be buying, you know,

all of these tests, they should be buying 20 million a day

and getting them out to people’s homes.

This virus has cost trillions of dollars

to the American people.

It’s closed down restaurants and stores

and obviously the main streets across America

have shuttered.

It’s killing people, it’s killing our economy,

it’s killing lifestyles and lives.

This is an obvious solution.

To me, this is exciting.

This is like, this is a solution.

I wish like in April or something like that

to launch like the larger scale manufacturing deployment

of tests.

Doesn’t matter what test they are.

It’s obviously the capitalist system

would create cheaper and cheaper tests

that would be hopefully driving down to $1.

So what are we talking about?

In America, there’s, I don’t know,

300 plus million people.

So that means you wanna be testing regularly, right?

So how many do you think is possible to manufacture?

What would be the ultimate goal to manufacture per month?

Yep, so if we wanna slow this virus

and actually stop it from transmitting,

achieve what I call herd effects.

Like vaccine herd immunity,

herd effects are when you get that R value below one

through preventing onward transmission.

If we wanna do that with these tests,

we need about 20 million to 40 million of them every day,

which is not a lot.

In the United States.

So we could do it.

There’s other ways.

You can have two people in a household swab each other,

swab themselves rather,

and then mix, put the swabs into the same tube

and onto one test so you can pool.

So you can get a two or three X gain in efficiency

through pooling in the household.

You could do that in schools or offices too,

wherever and just use a swab.

You have a, there’s two people.

I mean, even if it’s just standing in line

at a public testing site or something,

you could just say, okay,

these two are the last people to test or swab themselves.

They go into one thing.

And if it comes back positive,

then you just do each person and it’s rapid.

So you can just say to the people, one of you is positive.

Let’s test you again.

So there’s ways to get the efficiency gains much better.

But let’s say, I think that the optimal number right now

that matches sort of what we can produce more or less today,

if we want it, is 20 million a day.

Right now, one company that,

I don’t have their test here,

but one company is already producing 5 million tests

themselves and shipping them overseas.

It’s an American company based in California called Inova,

and they are giving 5 million tests to the UK every day.

Not to the, you know, and this is just because there’s no,

the federal government hasn’t authorized these tests.

So without the support of the government.

So yeah, so essentially,

if the government just puts some support behind it,

then yeah, you can get 20 million, probably easy.

Oh yeah, this, I mean, just here,

I have three different companies.

These, they all look similar.

Well, this one’s closed,

but these are three different companies right here.

This is a fourth, Abbott.

Now, this is a fifth.

This is a sixth.

These two are a little bit different.

Do you mind if in a little bit,

would you take some of these or?

Yeah, let’s do it.

We can absolutely do them.

So you have a lot of tests in front of you.

Could you maybe explain some of them?


So there’s a few different classes of tests

that I just have here, and there’s more tests.

There’s many more different tests out in the world too.

These are one class of tests.

These are rapid antigen tests

that are just the most bare bones paper strip tests.

These are, this is the type that I wanna see produced

in the tens of millions every day.

It’s so simple.

You don’t even need the plastic cartridge.

You can just make the paper strip,

and you could have a little tube like this

that you just dunk the paper strip into.

You don’t actually need the plastic,

which I’d actually prefer,

because if we start making tens of millions of these,

this becomes a lot of waste.

So I’d rather not see this kind of waste be out there.

And there’s a few companies,

Quidel is making a test called the Quick View,

which is just this.

It’s a, they’ve gotten rid of all the plastic.

And for people who are just listening to this,

we’re looking at some very small tests

that fit in the palm of your hand,

and they’re basically paper strips

fit into different containers.

And that’s hence the comment about the plastic containers.

These are just injection molded, I think.

And they’re, you know,

they can build them at high numbers,

but then they have to like place them in there appropriately

and all this stuff.

So it is a bottleneck,

or somewhat of a bottleneck in manufacturing.

The actual bottleneck, which the government, I think,

should use the Defense Productions Act to build up,

is there’s a nitrocellulose membrane,

a laminated membrane on this,

that allows the material,

the buffer with the swab mixture to flow across it.

So the way these work,

they’re called lateral flow tests.

And you take a swab,

you swab the front of your nose,

you dunk that swab into some buffer,

and then you put a couple of drops of that buffer

onto the lateral flow.

And just like paper,

if you dip a piece of paper into a cup of water,

the paper will pull the water up through capillary action.

This actually works very similarly.

It flows through somewhat a capillary action

through this nitrocellulose membrane.

And there’s little antibodies on there,

these little proteins that are very specific,

in this case, for antigens or proteins of the virus.

So these are antibodies similar to the antibodies

that our body makes from our immune system,

but they’re just printed on these lateral flow tests,

and they’re printed just like a little, a line.

So then you slice these all up into individual ones.

And if there’s any virus on that buffer,

as it flows across, the antibodies grab that virus,

and it creates a little reaction with some colloids in here

that cause it to turn dark.

Just like a pregnancy test,

one line means negative, it means a control strip worked,

and two lines mean positive.

It means, you know, if you get two lines,

it just means you have virus there.

You’re very, very likely to have virus there.

And so they’re super simple.

It is the exact same technology as pregnancy tests.

It’s the technology, this particular one from Abbott,

this has been used for other infectious diseases

like malaria, and actually a number of these companies

have made malaria tests that do the exact same thing.

So they just coopted the same form factor

and just changed the antibodies

so it picks up SARS CoV2 instead of other infections.

Is it also, the Abbott one, is it also a strip?

Yep, yeah, this Abbott one here is,

there’s the, in this case,

instead of being put in a plastic sheath,

it’s just put in a cardboard thing and literally glued on.

I mean, it looks like nothing, you know, it’s just,

it looks like a, like,

I mean, it’s just the simplest thing you could imagine.

The exterior packaging looks very Apple like, it’s nice.

It does, yeah, yeah.

Yeah, so it’s nice when it comes in a,

this is how they’re packaged, you know,

so, and they don’t have to, you know,

these are coming in individual packages against,

again, because they’re really considered

individual medical devices,

but you could package them in bigger packets and stuff.

You wanna be careful with humidity

so they all have a little,

one of those humidity removing things

and oxygen removing things.

So that’s, this is one class, these antigen tests.

If we could just pause for a second, if it’s okay,

and could you just briefly say what is an antigen test

and what other tests there are out there,

like categories of tests?


Just really quick.

So the testing landscape is a little bit complicated,

but it’s, but I’ll break it down.

There’s really just three major classes of tests.

We’ll start with the first two.

The first two tests are just looking for the virus

or looking for antibodies against the virus.

So we’ve heard about serology tests,

or maybe some people have heard about it.

Those are a different kind of test.

They’re looking to see has somebody in the past,

does somebody have an immune response against the virus,

which would indicate that they were infected

or exposed to it.

So we’re not talking about the antibody tests.

I’ll just leave it at that.

Those, they actually can look very similar to this,

or they can be done in a laboratory.

Those are usually done from blood

and they’re looking for an immune response to the virus.

So that’s one.

Everything I’m talking about here

is looking for the virus itself,

not the immune response to the virus.

And so there’s two ways to look for the virus.

You can either look for the genetic code of the virus,

like the RNA, just like the DNA of somebody’s human cells,

or you can look for the proteins themselves,

the antigens of the virus.

So I like to differentiate them.

If you were a PCR test that looks for RNA in,

let’s say if we made it against humans,

it would be looking for the DNA inside of our cells.

That would be actually looking for our genetic code.

The equivalent to an antigen test

is sort of a test that like actually is looking

for our eyes or our nose or physical features of our body

that would delineate, okay, this is Michael, for example.

And so you’re either looking for a sequence

or you’re looking for a structure.

The PCR tests that a lot of people have gotten now

and they’re done in labs usually

are looking for the sequence of the virus, which is RNA.

This test here by a company called Detect,

this is one of Jonathan Rothberg’s companies.

He’s the guy who helped create modern day sequencing

and all kinds of other things.

So this Detect device, that’s the name of the company,

this is actually a rapid RNA detection device.

So it’s almost, it’s like a PCR like test

and we could even do it here.

It’s really, it’s a beautiful test in my opinion,

works exceedingly well.

It’s gonna be a little bit more expensive.

So I think it could confirm,

could be used as a confirmatory test for these.

Is there a greater accuracy to it?

Yes, I would say that there is a greater accuracy.

There’s also a downfall though of PCR

and tests that look for RNA.

They can sometimes detect somebody

who is no longer infectious.

So you have the RNA test

and then you have these antigen tests.

The antigen tests look for structures,

but they’re generally only going to turn positive

if people have actively replicating virus in them.

And so what happens after an infection dissipates,

you’ve just gone from having sort of a spike.

So if you get infected, maybe three days later,

the virus gets into exponential growth

and it can replicate to trillions of viruses

inside the body.

Your immune system then kind of tackles it

and beats it down to nothing.

But what ends up in the wake of that,

you just had a battle.

You had this massive battle that just took place

inside your upper respiratory tract.

And because of that, you’ve had trillions and trillions

of viruses go to zero, essentially.

But the RNA is still there.

It’s just these remnants.

In the same way that if you go to a crime scene

and blood was sort of spread all over the crime scene,

you’re going to find a lot of DNA.

There’s tons of DNA.

There’s no people anymore, but there’s a lot of DNA there.

Same thing happens here.

And so what’s happening with PCR testing

is when people go and use these exceedingly high sensitivity

PCR tests, people will stay positive for weeks or months

after their infection has subsided,

which has caused a lot of problems, in my opinion.

It’s problems that the CDC and the FDA and doctors

don’t want to deal with.

But I’ve tried to publish on it.

I’ve tried to suggest that this is an issue,

both to New York Times and others.

And now it’s unfortunately kind of taken

on a life of its own of conspiracy theorists

thinking that they call it a case demic.

They say, oh, you know, PCR is detecting people

who are no longer, who are false positive.

They’re not false positives.

They’re late positives, no longer transmissible.

I think the way you, like what I saw in rapidtest.org,

I really liked the distinction between diagnostic

sensitivity and contagiousness sensitivity.

That’s, it’s so, that website is so obvious

that it’s painful because it’s like, yeah,

that’s what we should be talking about is

how accurately is a test able to detect your contagiousness?

And you have different plots that show that actually

there’s, you know, that antigen tests,

the tests we’re looking at today, like rapid tests,

are actually really good at detecting contagiousness.


It all mixes back with this whole idea that,

of the medical industrial complex.

You know, in this country, and in most countries,

we have almost entirely defunded

and devalued public health, period.

You know, we just have.

And what that means is that we don’t even,

we don’t have a language for it.

We don’t have a lexicon for it.

We don’t have a regulatory landscape for it.

And so the only window we have to look at a test today

is as a medical diagnostic test.

And that becomes very problematic when we’re trying

to tackle a public health threat

and a public health emergency.

By definition, this is a public health emergency

that we’re in.

And yet we keep evaluating tests

as though the diagnostic benchmark is the gold standard.

Where if I’m a physician, I am a physician,

so I’ll put on that physician hat for a moment.

And if I have a patient who comes to me

and wants to know if their symptoms are a result of them

having COVID, then I want every shred of evidence

that I can get to see, does this person currently

or did they recently have this infection inside of them?

And so in that sense, the PCR test is the perfect test.

It’s really sensitive.

It will find the RNA if it’s there at all

so that I could say, you know, yeah,

you have a low amount of RNA left.

You might’ve been, you said your symptoms

started two weeks ago.

You probably were infectious two weeks ago

and you have lingering symptoms from it.

But that’s a medical diagnosis.

It’s kind of like a detective recreating a crime scene.

They wanna go back there and recreate the pieces

so that they can assign blame or whatever it might be.

But that’s not public health.

In public health, we need to only look forward.

We don’t wanna go back and say,

well, was this person, are there symptoms

because they had an infection two weeks ago?

In public health, we just wanna stop the virus

from spreading to the next person.

And so that’s where we don’t care

if somebody was infected two weeks ago.

We only care about finding the people

who are infectious today.

And unfortunately, our regulatory landscape

fails to apply that knowledge

to evaluate these tests as public health tools.

They’re only evaluating the tests as medical tools.

And therefore, we get all kinds of complaints

that say this test, which detects 99 plus,

99.8% of current infectious people,

by the FDA’s rubric, they’ll say,

no, no, it’s only 50% sensitive.

And that’s because when you go out into the world

and you just compare this against PCR positivity,

most people who are PCR positive in the world right now

at any given time are post infectious.

They’re no longer infectious

because you might only be infectious for five days,

but then you’ll remain PCR positive

for three or four or five weeks.

And so when you go and just evaluate these tests

and you say, okay, this person’s PCR positive,

does the rapid antigen test detect that?

More often than not, it’s no.

But that’s because those people don’t need isolation.

They’re post infectious.

And it’s become much more of a problem

than I think even the FDA themself is recognizing

because they are unwilling at this point

to look at this as a public health problem

requiring public health tools.

We’ll definitely talk about this a little bit more

because the concern I have is that

a bigger pandemic comes along.

What are the lessons we draw from this

and how we move forward?

Let’s talk about that in a bit.

But sort of, can we discuss further the lay of the land here

of the different tests before us?


So I talked about PCR tests and those are done in the lab

or they’re done essentially with a rapid test like this,

the detect, and we can even try this in a moment.

It goes into a little heater.

So you might have one of these in a household

or one of these in a nursing home or something like that

or in an airport.

Or you could have one that has 100 different outlets.

This is just to heat the tube up.

These are the rapid tests.

They’re super simple, no frills.

You just swab your nose and you put the swab into a buffer

and you put the buffer on the test.

So we can use these right now if you want.

We can try it out.

And all the tests we’re talking about,

they’re usually swabbing the nose.

Like that’s the…

That’s still the main, yeah.

There are some saliva tests coming about

and these can all work potentially with saliva.

They just have to be recalibrated.

But these swabs are really not bad.

This isn’t the deep swab that goes like way back

into your nose or anything.

This is just a swab that you do yourself

like right in the front of your nose.

So if you wanna do it.

Yeah, do you mind if I?

Sure, yeah.

Yeah, why don’t we start with this one?

Because this is Abbott’s Buy Next Now test

and it’s really, it’s pretty simple.

This is the swab from the Abbott test.

That’s correct.

That’s the swab from the Abbott test.

So what I’m gonna do to start

is I’m going to take this buffer here,

which is, this is just the buffer

that goes onto this test.

So this is a brand new one.

I just opened this test out.

I’m gonna just take six drops of this buffer

and put it right onto this test here.

Two, three, four, five, six.


And now you’re gonna take that swab, open it up.

Yep, and now just wipe it around inside the,

into the front of your nose.

Do a few circles on each nostril.

That looks good.

This always makes me wanna sneeze.


Okay, now I’m gonna have you do it yourself.

I’m getting emotional.

Hold it parallel to the test.

So put the test down on the table.

Yep, and then go into that bottom hole.

Yep, and push forward

so that you can start to see it in the other hole.

There you go.

Now turn, if it’s, once it hits up against the top,

just turn it three times.

One, two, three, and sort of, yep.

And now you just close,

so pull off that adhesive sticker there.

And now you just close the whole thing.


And that’s it.

That’s it.

Now what we will see

is we will see a line form.

What’s happening now is the buffer that you put in there

is now moving up onto the paper strip test,

and it has the material from the swab in there.

And so what we’ll see is a line will form,

and that’s gonna be the control line.

And then we’ll also see the,

ideally we’ll see no line for the actual line.

We’ll see no line for the actual test line.

And that’s because you should be negative.

So one line will be positive and two lines will be negative.

That’s very cool.

There’s this purple thing creeping up

onto the control line.

That’s perfect.

That’s what you wanna be seeing.

So you want to see that,

so right now you essentially want to see

that that blue line turns pink or purply color.

There’s a blue line that’s already there printed.

It should turn sort of a purple pink color.

And ideally there will be no additional line for the sample.

And if there is,

that’s the 99 point whatever percent accuracy on,

that means I have, I’m contagious.

That would mean that you’re likely contagious

or you likely have infectious virus in you.

What we can do,

because one of the things that my plan calls for

is because sometimes these tests

can get false positive results, it’s rare.

Maybe 1% or in the case of this Binex now,

this Abbott test 0.1%.

So one in a thousand, one in 500,

something like that can be falsely positive.

What I recommend is that when somebody is positive

on one of these,

you turn around and you immediately test

on a different test.

You could either do it on the same,

but for good measure,

you want to use a separate test

that is somewhat orthogonal,

meaning that it shouldn’t turn falsely positive

for the same reason.

This particular test here,

this detect test because it is looking for the RNA

and not the antigen,

this is an amazingly accurate test

and it’s sort of a perfect gold standard

or confirmatory test for any of these antigen tests.

So one of the recommendations that I’ve had,

especially if people start using antigen tests

before you get onto a plane

or as what I call entrance screening,

if somebody is positive,

you don’t immediately tell them,

you’re positive, go isolate for 10 days.

You tell them, let’s confirm on one of these,

on a detect test.

That is because it’s completely orthogonal,

it’s looking for the RNA instead of the antigen.

There’s no reason, no biological reason

that both of these should be falsely positive.

So if one’s falsely positive and the other one is negative,

especially because this one’s more sensitive,

then I would trust this as a confirmatory test.

If this one’s negative, then the antigen test

would be considered falsely positive.

It does look like there’s only a single line,

so this is very exciting news.

That’s right, yep.

It says wait 15 minutes to see both lines,

but in general, if somebody’s really gonna be positive,

that line starts showing up within a minute or two.

So you wanna keep the whole,

we’ll keep watching it for the whole 15 minutes

as it’s sitting there, but I would say

you’re knowing that you’ve had PCR tests recently

and all that.

The odds are pretty good.

The odds are very good.

The packaging, very iPhone like.

I’m digging the sexy packaging.

I’m a sucker for good packaging, okay.

So then there’s this test here,

which is, this is another, it’s funny.

Let me open this up and show you.

This is a really nice test.

It’s another antigen test.

Works the exact same way as this, essentially,

but what you can see is it’s got lights in it

and a power button and stuff.

This is called an allume test, which is fine,

and it’s a really nice test, to be honest,

but it has to pair with an iPhone.

And so it’s good as a,

I think that this is gonna become,

there’s a lot of use for this from a medical perspective,

where you want good reporting.

This can, because it pairs with an iPhone,

it can immediately send the report

to a department of health,

whereas these paper strip tests, they’re just paper.

They don’t report anything unless you wanna report it.

Okay, so I’m gonna just pick it apart.

And so you can see is there’s fluorescent readers

and little lasers and LEDs and stuff in there.

You can actually see the lights going off.

And there’s a paper strip test right inside there,

but you can see that there’s a whole circuit board

and all this stuff, right?

And so this is the kind of thing

that the FDA is looking for,

for home use and things like that,

because it’s kind of foolproof.

You can’t go wrong with it.

It pairs with an iPhone, so you need Bluetooth.

So it’s gonna be more limited.

It’s a great test, don’t get me wrong.

It’s as good as any of these.

But when you compare this thing with a battery

and a circuit board and all this stuff,

it’s got its purpose, but it’s not a public health tool.

I don’t wanna see this made in the tens of millions a day

and thrown away.

This is just.

But FDA likes that kind of stuff.

FDA loves this stuff,

because they can’t get it out of their mind

that this is a public health crisis.

We need, I mean, just look at the difference here.

Something with flashing lights is essential.

It’s got batteries, it’s got a Bluetooth thing.

It’s a great test, but to be honest,

it’s not any better than this one.

And so I want this one.

It’s nice and all.

The form factor is nice,

and it’s really nice that it goes to Bluetooth.

But it goes against the principle of just 20 million a day.

The easy solution, everybody has it.

You can manufacture and probably,

you could’ve probably scaled this up in a couple of weeks.

Oh, absolutely.

These companies, I mean, the rest of the world has these.

They can be scaled up.

They already exist.

You know, SD biosensors,

one company’s making tens of millions a day,

not coming to the United States,

but going all over Europe,

going all over Southeast Asia and East Asia.

So they exist.

The US is just, you know, we can’t get out of our own way.

I wonder why somebody,

I don’t know if you were paying attention,

but somebody like an Elon Musk type character.

So he was really into doing

some like obvious engineering solution,

like this at home rapid test

seems like a very Elon Musk thing to do.

I don’t know if you saw,

but I had a little Twitter conversation with Elon Musk.

Does he not like, what is he,

do you know what his thoughts are on rapid testing?

Well, he was using a slightly different one,

one of these, but that requires an instrument

called the BD Veritor.

And he got a false positive,

or no, I shouldn’t say,

he didn’t necessarily get a false positive.

He got discrepant results.

He did this test four times.

He got two positives, two negatives,

but then he got a PCR test

and it was a very low positive result.

So I think what happened is he just tested himself

at the tail end of an,

this was actually right before he was about to send those.

It was the day of essentially that he was sending

the astronauts up to the space station the other day.

So he was using these rapid tests

cause he wanted to make sure that he was good to go in

and he got discrepant results.

Ultimately they were correct,

but two were negative, two were positive.

But what really happened once he shared his PCR results

and they were very low positive.

So really what was happening is,

my guess is he found himself right at the edge

of his positivity, of his infectiousness.

And so the test worked how it was supposed to work.

It probably had he used it two days earlier,

it would have been screaming positive.

He wouldn’t have gotten discrepant results,

but he found himself right at the edge

by the time he used the test.

So the PCR would always pick it up

cause it’s still, cause that will still stay positive

then for weeks potentially.

But the rapid antigen test was starting to falter,

not in a bad way,

but just he probably was really no longer

particularly infectious.

And so it was kind of when it gets to be a very low viral

load, it becomes stochastic.

It’s fascinating this duality.

So one you can think from an individual perspective,

it’s unclear when you take four and half are positive,

half are negative, like what are you supposed to do?

But from a societal perspective,

it seems like if just one of them is positive,

just stay home for a couple of days, for a while.

So when you’re a CEO of a company,

you’re launching astronauts to space,

you may not want to rely absolutely on the antigen test

as a thing by which you steer your decisions

of like 10,000 plus people companies.

But us individuals just living in the world,

if you can, if it comes up positive,

then you make decisions based on that.

And then that scales really nicely to an entire society

of hundreds of millions of people.

And that’s how you get that virus to stop spreading.

That’s exactly right.

You don’t have to catch every single one.

And the nice thing is that these will,

these will catch the people who are most infectious.

So with Elon Musk, it generally that test,

we don’t have the counterfactual.

We don’t have his results from three days earlier

when he was probably most infectious.

But my guess is the fact that it was catching two

out of the four, even when he was down at a CT value

of really, really very, very low viral load on the PCR test

suggests that it was doing its job.

And you just wanna, and the nice thing is

because these can be produced at such scale,

getting one positive doesn’t immediately have to mean

10 days of isolation.

That’s the CDC is more conservative stance to say,

if you’re positive on any tests,

stay home for 10 days and isolate.

But here, people would just have more tests.

So the recommendation should be test daily.

If you turn positive, test daily

until you’ve been negative for 24, 48 hours

and then go back to work.

And the nice thing there is right now,

people just aren’t testing

because they don’t wanna take 10 days off.

They’re not getting paid for it.

So they can’t take 10 days off.

Do you know what Elon thinks about this idea

of rapid testing for everybody?

So I understood I need to look at that whole Twitter thread.

So I understand his perhaps criticism of,

he had like a conspiratorial tone from my vague look at it

of like, what’s going on here with these tests?

But what does he actually think about

this very practical to me engineering solution

of just deploying rapid tests to everybody?

It seems like that’s a way to open up the economy in April.

Well, to be honest,

I’ve been trying to get in touch with him again.

I think, take somebody like Elon Musk

with the engineering prowess within his ranks,

to easily, easily build these at the tens of millions a day.

He could build the machines from scratch.

A lot of the companies,

they buy the machines from South Korea or Taiwan, I believe.

We don’t have to, we can build these machines.

They’re simple to build.

Put somebody like Elon Musk on it,

take some of his best engineers and say,

look, the US needs a solution in two weeks.

Build these machines, figure it out.

He’ll do it, he could do it.

This is a guy who is literally,

he has started multiple entirely new industries.

He has the capital to do it without the US government

if he wanted to.

And you know what, it would,

the return on investment for him would be huge.

But frankly, the return on investment in the country

would be hundreds of billions of dollars,

because it means we could get society open.

So I know that his first experience

with these rapid tests was confusing,

which is how I ended up having this Twitter

kind of conversation with him very briefly.

But I think that if he understood

sort of a little bit more, and I think he does,

I really love to talk to him about it,

because I think he could totally change

the course of this pandemic in the United States,

single handedly.

He loves grand things.

Yeah, I think out of all the solutions I’ve seen,

this is the obvious engineering solution

to at least a pandemic of this scale.

I love that you say the engineering solution.

So this is something I’ve been really trying to,

I’m an engineer, my previous history was all engineering,

and that’s really how I think.

I then went into medicine and PhD world,

but I think that the world,

like one of the major catastrophes,

or one of the major problems,

is that we have physicians making the decisions

about public health and a pandemic,

when really we need engineers.

This is an engineering problem.

And so what I’ve been trying to do,

I actually really want to start a whole new field

called public health engineering.

And so I’ve been, eventually I want to try

to bring it to MIT and get MIT

to want to start a new department or something.

That’s a doubly awesome idea.


That, this is really, okay.

I love this, I love every aspect.

I love everything you’re talking about.

A lot of people believe,

because vaccines started being deployed currently,

that we are no longer in need of a solution.

We’re no longer in need of slowing the spread of the virus.

To me, as I understand,

it seems like this is the most important time

to have something like a rapid testing solution.

Can you kind of break that apart?

What’s the role of rapid testing currently

in the next, what is it, three, four months maybe?

Even more.

The vaccine rollout isn’t gonna be as peachy

as everyone is hoping.

And I hate to be the Debbie Downer here,

but there’s a lot of unknowns with this vaccine.

You’ve already mentioned one,

which is there’s a lot of people

who just don’t want to get the vaccine.

I hope that that might change as things move forward

and people see their neighbors getting it

and their family getting it and it’s safe and all.

We don’t know how effective the vaccine is gonna be

after two or three months.

We’ve only measured it in the first two or three months,

which is a massive problem,

which we can go into biologically,

because there’s very good reasons to believe

that the efficacy could fall way down

after two or three months.

We don’t know if it’s gonna stop transmission.

And if it doesn’t stop transmission,

then there’s, you know,

herd immunity is much, much more difficult to get

because that’s all based on transmission blockade.

And frankly, we don’t know how easily

we’re going to be able to roll it out.

Some of the vaccines need really significant cold chains,

have very short half lives outside of that cold chain.

We need to organize massive numbers of people

to be able to distribute these.

Most hospitals today are saying that they’re not equipped

to hire the right people

to be even administering enough of these vaccines.

And then a lot of the hospitals

are frustrated because they’re getting much lower,

smaller allocations than they were expecting.

So I think right now, like you say,

right now is the best time,

you know, besides three or four or five or six months ago,

right now is the best time to get these rapid tests out.

And we need to, I mean,

the country has the capacity to build them.

We have, we’re shipping them overseas right now.

We just need to flip a switch,

get the FDA to recognize

that there’s more important things than diagnostic medicine,

which is the effectiveness of the public health program

when we’re dealing with a pandemic.

They need to authorize these as public health tools,

or, you know, frankly, the president could,

you know, there’s a lot of other ways to get these tests

to not have to go through

the normal FDA authorization program,

but maybe have the NIH and the CDC give a stamp of approval.

And if we could, we could get these out tomorrow.

And that’s where that article came from,

you know, how we can stop the spread of this virus

by Christmas, we could, you know, now it’s getting late.

And so we have to keep updating that timeframe,

maybe putting Christmas in the title wasn’t,

I should have said how we can stop

the spread of this virus in a month.

It would be a little bit more timeless,

but we could do it, you know, we really could do it.

And that’s the most frustrating part here is that

we’re just choosing not to as a country.

We’re choosing to bankrupt our society

because some people at the FDA and other places

just can’t seem to get their head around the fact

that this is a public health problem,

not a bunch of medical problems.

Is there a way to change that policy wise?

So this is a much bigger thing that you’re speaking to,

which I love in terms of the MIT engineering approach

to public health.

Is there a way to push this?

Is this a political thing?

Like where some Andrew Yang type characters

need to like start screaming about it?

Is it more of an Elon Musk thing

where people just need to build it

and then on Twitter start talking crap

to politicians for not doing it?

What are the ideas here?

I think it’s a little of both.

I think it’s political on the one hand,

and I’ve certainly been talking to Congress a lot,

talking to senators.

Are they receptive?

Oh, yeah.

I mean, that’s the crazy thing.

Everyone but the FDA is receptive.

I mean, it’s astounding.

I mean, I advise, informally I advise the president

and the president elects teams.

I talk to Congress, I talk to senators, governors,

and then all the way down to mayors of towns and things.

And I mean, months ago I held a round table discussion

with Mayor Garcetti, who’s the mayor of LA,

and I brought all the companies who make these things.

This was in like July or August or something.

I brought all the companies to the table

and said, okay, how can we get these out?

And unfortunately, it went nowhere

because the FDA won’t authorize them

as public health tools.

The nice thing is that this is one of the nice

and frustrating things.

This is one of the few bipartisan things that I know of.

And like you said, it’s a real solution.

Lockdowns aren’t a solution.

They’re an emergency bandaid to a catastrophe

that’s currently happening.

They’re not a solution.

And they’re definitely not a public health solution

if we’re taking a more holistic view of public health,

which includes people’s wellbeing,

includes their psychological wellbeing,

their financial wellbeing.

Just stopping a virus if it means

that all those other things get thrown under the bus

is not a public health solution.

It’s a myopic or very tunnel visioned approach

to a virus that’s spreading.

This is a simple solution with essentially no downfall.

There is nothing bad about this.

It’s just giving people a result.

And it’s bipartisan.

The most conservative and the most liberal people,

everyone just wants to know their status.

Nobody wants to have to wait in line for four hours

to find out their status on Monday,

a week later, on Saturday.

It just doesn’t make any sense.

It’s a useless test at that point.

And everyone recognizes that.

So why do you think, like the mayor of LA,

why do you think politicians are going for these,

from my perspective, like kind of half ass lockdowns,

which is not, so I have seen good evidence

that like a complete lockdown can work,

but that’s in theory, it’s just like communism in theory

can work.

Like theoretically speaking, but it just doesn’t,

at least in this country, we don’t,

I think it’s just impossible to have complete lockdown.

And still politicians are going for these kind of lockdowns

that everybody hates,

that’s really hurting small businesses.

Like why are they going for that?

And big businesses, and yeah, all businesses,

but like basically not just hurting,

they’re destroying small businesses, right?

Which is going to have potentially, I mean,

yeah, I’ve been reading as I don’t shut up

about the rise and fall of the Third Reich,

and there’s economic effects that take a decade to,

there’s going to be long lasting effects

that may be destructive to the very fabric of this nation.

So why are they doing it,

and why are they not using the solution?

Is there any intuition?

I mean, you’ve said that FDA has a stranglehold, I guess,

on this whole public health problem.

Is that all it is?

That’s honestly, it’s pretty much all it is.

The companies, so somebody like Mayor Garcetti

or Governor Baker, Cuomo, Newsom,

any of these, DeWine, I’ve talked to a lot of governors

in this country at this point,

and of course the federal government,

including the president’s own teams,

and the heads of the NIH, the heads of the CDC about this.

The problem is the tests don’t exist in this country

at the level that we need them to right now

to make that kind of policy, to make that kind of program.

They could, but they don’t.

And so what that means is that when Mayor Garcetti says,

okay, what are my actual options today,

despite these sounding like a great idea,

he looks around and he says, well, they’re not authorized.

They don’t exist right now for at home use.

And from his perspective,

he’s not about to pick that fight with the FDA,

and it turns out nobody is.

Why are people afraid of,

it seems like an easy struggle to fight.

It’s like a…

So they don’t see it as a fight.

They think that the FDA is the end all be all.

Everyone thinks the FDA is the end all be all.

And so they just defer, everyone is deferential,

including the heads of all the other government agencies

because that is their role.

But what everyone is failing to see

is that the FDA doesn’t even have a mandate or a remit

to evaluate these tests as public health tools.

So they’re just falling in this weird gray zone

where the FDA is saying, look,

we evaluate medical products.

That’s the only thing that I meant,

like Tim Stenzel, head of in vitro diagnostics at the FDA,

he’s doing what his job is,

which is to evaluate medical tools.

Unfortunately, this is where I think the CDC

has really blundered.

They haven’t made the right distinction to say, look,

okay, the FDA is evaluating these for doctors to use

and all that, but we’re the CDC

and we’re the public health agency of this country

and we recognize that these tools

require a different authorization pathway

and a different use, not prescription.

There’s a difference between medical devices

and public health.

And I guess FDA is not designed for this public health,

especially in emergency situations.

And they actually explicitly say that.

I mean, when I go and talk to Tim,

and he’s a very reasonable guy,

but when I talk to him, he says,

look, we don’t, we just do not evaluate

a public health tool.

If you’re telling me this is a public health tool,

great, go and use it.

And so I say, okay, great, we’ll go and use it.

And then the comment is,

but does it give a result back to somebody?

I say, well, yes, of course it gives a result

back to somebody, it’s being done in their home.

So then it’s defined as a medical tool, can’t use it.

So it’s stuck in this gray zone where unfortunately,

there’s this weird definition that any tool,

any test that gives a result back to an individual

is defined by CMS, Centers for Medicaid Services,

as a medical device requiring medical authorization.

But then you go and ask, it gets crazier,

because then you go and ask Seema Verma,

the head of CMS, you know, okay,

can these be authorized as public health tools

and not fall under your definition of a medical device?

So then the FDA doesn’t have to be the ones

authorizing it as a public health tool.

And Seema Verma says, oh, we don’t have any jurisdiction

over point of care and sort of rapid devices like this.

We only have jurisdiction over lab devices.

So it’s like nobody has ownership over it,

which means that they just keep,

they stay in this purgatory of not being approved.

And so this is where I think, frankly, it needs a president.

It needs a presidential order to just unlock them,

to say this is more important than having a prescription.

And in fact, I mean, really what’s happening now,

because there is this sense that tests

are public health tools,

even if they’re not being defined as such,

the FDA now is pretty much,

not only are they not authorizing these

as public health tools,

what they’re doing by authorizing

what are effectively public health tools as medical devices,

they’re just diluting down the practice of medicine.

I mean, his answer right now, unfortunately is,

well, I don’t know why you want these to be

sort of available to everyone without a prescription.

We’ve already said that a doctor can write

a whole prescription for a whole college campus.

It’s like, well, if you’re going in that direction then,

and that’s no longer medicine,

having a doctor write a prescription for a college campus,

for everyone on the campus to have repeat testing,

now we’re just in the territory of eroding medicine

and eroding all of the legal rules

and reasons that we have prescriptions in the first place.

So it’s just everything about it is just destructive

instead of just making a simple solution,

which is these are okay as public health tools

as long as they meet X and Y metrics,

go and CDC can put their stamp of approval on them.

What do you think, sorry if I’m stuck on this,

your mention of MIT and public health engineering, right?

I mean, it has a sense of,

I talked to computational biology folks.

It’s always exciting to see computer scientists

start entering the space of biology.

And there’s actually a lot of exciting things

that happen because of that,

trying to understand the fundamentals of biology.

So from the engineering approach to public health,

what kind of problems do you think can be tackled?

What kind of disciplines are involved?

Like, do you have ideas in this space?

Oh yeah.

I mean, I can speak to one of the major activities

that I wanna do.

So what I normally do in my research lab

is develop technologies that can take a drop

of somebody’s blood or some saliva

and profile for hundreds of thousands

of different antibodies against every single pathogen

that somebody could be possibly exposed to.

That’s awesome.

So this is all new technology

that we’ve been developing more

from a bioengineering perspective.

But then I use a lot of the mathematics tools

to A, interpret that.

But what I really wanna do, for example,

to kind of kick off this new field

of what I consider public health engineering

is to create, maybe it’s a little ambitious,

but create a weather system for viruses.

I want us to be able to open up our iPhones,

plug in our zip code and get a better sense,

get a probability of why my kid has a runny nose today.

Is it COVID?

Is it a rhinovirus, an adenovirus, or is it flu?

And we can do that.

We can start building the rules of virus spread

across the globe, both for pandemic preparedness,

but also for just everyday use in the same way

that people used to think that predicting the weather

was gonna be impossible.

Of course, we know that’s not impossible now.

Is it always perfect?

No, but does it offer, does it completely change the way

that we go about our days?


I envision, for example, right now,

we open up our iPhone, we plug in a zip code,

and if it tells us it’s gonna rain today,

we bring an umbrella.

So in the future, it tells us,

hey, there’s a lot of SARS CoV2 in your community.

Instead of grabbing your umbrella, you grab your mask.

We don’t have to have masks all the time.

But if we know the rules of the game

that these viruses play by,

we can start preparing for those.

And every year, we go into every flu season blindfolded

with our hands tied behind our back, just saying,

I hope this isn’t a bad flu season this year.

I don’t, I mean, this is, we’re in the 21st century.

We have the tools at our disposal now

to not have that attitude.

This isn’t like 1920s.

You know, we can just say,

hey, this is gonna be a bad flu season this year.

Let’s act accordingly and with a targeted approach.

You know, we don’t, for example,

we don’t just use our umbrellas all day long,

every single day, in case it might rain.

We don’t board up our homes every single day

in case there’s a hurricane.

We wait, and if we know that there’s one coming,

then we act for a small period of time accordingly.

And then we go back, and we’ve prepared ourselves

in like these little bursts to not have it ruin our days.

I can’t tell you how exciting

that vision of the future is.

I think that’s incredible.

And it seems like it should be within our reach,

the, just these like weather maps of viruses

floating about the Earth, and it seems obvious.

It’s one of those things where right now,

it seems like maybe impossible.

And then looking back like 20 years from now,

we’ll wonder like why the hell

this hasn’t been done way earlier.

Though one difference between weather,

I don’t know if you have interesting ideas in this space.

The difference between weather and viruses

is it includes, the collection of the data

includes the human body, potentially.

And that means that there is some, as with the contact

tracing question, there’s some concern about privacy.

There seems to be this dance that’s really complicated.

With Facebook getting a lot of flack

for basically misusing people’s data,

or just whether it’s perception or reality,

there’s certainly a lot of reality to it too,

where they’re not good stewards of our private data.

So there’s this weird place where it’s like obvious

that if we do, if we collect a lot of data

about human beings and maintain privacy

and maintain all like basic respect for that data,

just like honestly common sense respect for the data,

that we can do a lot of amazing things for the world,

like a weather map for viruses.

Is there a way forward to gain trust of people

or to do this well, do you have ideas here?

How big is this problem?

I think it’s a central problem.

There’s a couple central problems that need to be solved.

One, how do you get all the samples?

That’s not actually too difficult.

I’m actually, I have a pilot project going right now

with getting samples from across all the United States.

Tens of thousands of samples every week

are flowing into my lab and we process them.

So it’s taking the, it’s taking like one of the,

basically there’s biology here and chemistry

and converting that into numbers.

That’s exactly right.

So what we’re doing, for example,

there’s a lot of people who go to the hospital every day,

a lot of people who donate blood, people who donate plasma.

So one of the projects that I have,

I’ll get to the privacy question in a moment,

but this, so what I wanna do is the name that I’ve given

this as a global immunological observatory.

There’s no reason not to have that.

Good name.

I’ve said, instead of saying, well,

how do we possibly get enough people on board

to send in samples all the time?

Well, just go to the source.

So there’s a company in Massachusetts

that makes 80% of all the instruments

that are used globally to collect plasma from plasma donors.

So I went to this company, Hemenetics, and said,

is there a way you have 80% of the global market

on plasma donations?

Can we start getting plasma samples

from healthy people that use your machines?

So that hooked me up with this company called Octopharma.

And Octopharma has a huge reach

and offices all over the country

where they’re just collecting people’s plasma.

They actually pay people for their plasma

and then that gets distributed to hospitals

and all this stuff is anonymous plasma.

So I’ve just been collecting anonymous samples.

And we’re processing them, in this case,

for COVID antibodies to watch from January

up through December, we’re able to watch

how the virus entered into the United States

and how it’s transmitting every day across the US.

So we’re getting those results organized now

and we’re gonna start putting them publicly online soon

to start making at least a very rough map of COVID.

But that’s the type of thinking that I have

in terms of like, how do you actually capture

huge numbers of specimens?

You can’t ask everyone to participate on sort of a,

I mean, you maybe could if you have the right tools

and you can offer individuals something in return

like 23andMe does.

That’s a great way to get people to give specimens

and they get results back.

So with these technologies that I’ve been building

along with some collaborators at Harvard,

we can come up with tools that people might actually want.

So I can offer you your immunological history.

I can say, give me a drop of your blood on a filter paper,

mail it in and I will be able to tell you

every infectious disease you’ve ever encountered

and maybe even when you encountered it roughly.

I could tell you, do you have COVID antibodies right now?

Do you have Lyme disease antibodies right now?

Flu, triple E and all these different viruses.

Also peanut allergies, milk allergies, anything.

If your immune system makes a response to it,

we can detect that response.

So all of a sudden we have this very valuable technology

that on the one hand gives people maybe information

they might want to know about themselves,

but on the other hand becomes this amazingly rich

source of big data to enter into

this global immunological observatory

sort of mathematical framework to start building

these maps, these epidemiological tools.

But you asked about privacy

and absolutely that’s essential to keep in mind

first and foremost.

So privacy can be,

you can keep these samples 100% anonymous.

They are just, when I get them, they show up with nothing.

They’re literally just tubes.

I know a date that they were collected

and a zip code that they’re collected from

or even just sort of a county level ID.

So with an IRB and with ethical approval

and with the people’s consent,

we can maybe collect more data,

but that would require consent.

But then there’s this other approach

which I’m really excited about,

which is certainly going to gain some scrutiny I think,

but we’ll have to figure out where it comes into play.

But I’ve been recognizing that we can take somebody’s

immunological profile and we can make a biological

fingerprint out of it.

And it’s actually stable enough

so that I could take your blood.

Let’s say I don’t know who you are,

but you sent me a drop of blood a year ago

and then you sent me a drop of blood today.

I don’t know that those two blood spots

are coming from the same person.

They’re just showing up in my lab.

But I can run our technology over

and it just gives me your immunological history.

But your immunological history is so unique to you

and the way that your body responds to these pathogens

is so unique to you

that I can use that to tether your two samples.

I don’t know who you are, I know nothing about you.

I only know when those samples came out of a person.

But I can say, oh, these two samples a year apart

actually belong to the same person.

Yeah, so there’s sufficient information

in that immunological history to match the samples.

Or from a privacy perspective, that’s really exciting.

Does that generally hold for humans?

So you’re saying there’s enough uniqueness to match?

Yeah, because it’s very stochastic, even twins.

So this, I believe, we haven’t published this yet.

We will soon.

You have a twin too, right?

I do have a twin, I have an identical twin brother,

which makes me interested in this.

He looks very much like me.

Oh, is that how that works?


And DNA can’t really tell us apart.

But this tool is one of the only tools in the world

that could tell twins apart from each other.

Could still be accurate enough to say this blood,

it’s like 99.999% accurate to say

that these two blood samples came from the same individual.

And it’s because it’s a combination,

both of your immunological history,

but also how your unique body responds to a pathogen,

which is random.

The way that we make antibodies is, by and large,

it’s got an element of randomness to it.

How the cells, when they make an antibody,

they chop up the genetic code to say,

okay, this is the antibody that I’m gonna form

for this pathogen.

And you might form, if you get a coronavirus, for example,

you might form hundreds of different antibodies,

not just one antibody against the spike protein,

but hundreds of different antibodies

against all different parts of the virus.

So that gives this really rich resolution of information

that when I then do the same thing

across hundreds of different pathogens,

some of which you’ve seen, some of which you haven’t,

it gives you an exceedingly unique fingerprint

that is sufficiently stable over years and years and years

to essentially give you a barcode.

And I don’t have to know who you are,

but I can know that these two specimens

came from the same person somewhere out in the world.

So fascinating that there’s this trace,

your life story in the space of viruses,

in the space of pathogen, like these,

you know, because there’s this entire universe

of these organisms that are trying to destroy each other.

And then your little trajectory through that space

leaves a trace, and then you can look at that trace.

That’s fascinating.

And that, I mean, there’s, okay,

that data period is just fascinating.

And the vision of making that data universally connected

to where you can make, like infer things,

and just like with the weather, is really fascinating.

And there’s probably artificial intelligence

applications there, start making predictions,

start finding patterns.

Exactly, we’re doing a lot of that already.

And that’s how, how do we have this going?

You know, I’ve been trying to get this funded for years now.

And I’ve spoken to governments, you know,

everyone says, cool idea, not gonna do it.

You know, why do we need it?

Oh, really?

The why do you need it?

Yeah, the why do you need it.

And of course now, you know, I mean,

I wrote in 2015 about this,

why we would, why this would be useful.

And of course, now we’re seeing why it would be useful.

Had we had this up and running in 2019,

had we had it going, we were drawing blood from,

you know, we’re getting blood samples from hospitals

and clinics and blood donors from New York City,

let’s just say, you know, that could have,

we didn’t run the first PCR test for coronavirus

until probably a month and a half or two months

after the virus started transmitting in New York City.

So it’s like with the rain,

we didn’t start wearing umbrella or taking out umbrellas.

Exactly, for two months, but different than the rain,

we couldn’t actually see that it was spreading right now.

And so Andrew Cuomo had no choice

but to leave the city open.

You know, there were hints that maybe the virus

was spreading in New York City,

but you know, he didn’t have any data to back it up.

No data.

And so it was just week on week and week.

And he didn’t have any information to really go by

to allow him to have the firepower

to say we’re closing down the city.

This is an emergency.

We have to stop spread before it starts.

And so they waited until the first PCR tests

were coming about.

And then the moment they started running PCR tests,

they find out it’s everywhere.

You know, and so that was a disaster

because of course New York City, you know,

was just hit so bad because nobody was,

you know, we were blind to it.

We didn’t have to be blind to it.

And the nice thing about this technology is

we wouldn’t have, with the exact same technology

we had in 2017, we could have detected

this novel coronavirus spreading in New York City in 2020.

Not because we changed, not because we are actually

actively looking for this novel coronavirus,

but because we would see, we would have seen patterns

in people’s immune responses using AI,

or just frankly using our, just the raw data itself.

We could have said, hey, it looks like there’s

something that looks like known coronavirus

is spreading in New York, but there’s gaps.

You know, there’s, for some reason,

people aren’t developing an immune response

to this coronavirus that seems to be spreading

to these normal things that, you know,

and it just looks, the profile looks different.

And we could have seen that and immediately,

especially since we had an idea that

there was a novel coronavirus circulating in the world,

we could have very quickly and easily seen,

hey, clearly we’re seeing a spike of something

that looks like a known coronavirus,

but people are responding weirdly to it.

Our AI algorithms would have picked it up,

and just our basic, heck, you could have put it

in an Excel spreadsheet, we would have seen it.


Some basic visualization would have shown it.

Exactly, we would have seen spikes,

and they would have been kind of like off, you know,

immune responses that the shape of them

just looked a little bit different,

but they would have been growing,

and we would have seen it, and it could have

saved tens of thousands of lives in New York City.

So to me, the fascinating question,

everything we’ve talked about,

so both the huge collection of data at scale,

just super exciting, and then the kind of obvious

at scale solution to the current virus

and future ones is the rapid testing.

Can we talk about the future of viruses

that might be threatening our very existence?

So do you think like a future natural virus

can have an order of magnitude greater effect

on human civilization than anything we’ve ever seen?

So something that either kills all humans,

or kills, I don’t know, 60, 70% of humans.

So something like something we can’t even imagine.

Is that something that you think is possible?

Because it seems to not have happened yet.

So maybe like the entirety, whoever the programmer is

of the simulation that sort of launched the evolution

from the Big Bang seems to not want to destroy us humans.

Or maybe that’s the natural side effect

of the evolutionary process that humans are useful.

But do you think it’s possible

that the evolutionary process will produce a virus

that will kill all humans?

I think it could.

I don’t think it’s likely.

And the reason I don’t think it’s likely

is on the one hand, it hasn’t happened yet,

in part because mobility is a recent phenomena.

People weren’t particularly mobile

until fairly recently.

Now, of course, now that we have people flying back

and forth across the globe all the time,

the chances of global pandemics

has escalated exponentially, of course.

And so on the one hand,

that’s part of why it hasn’t happened yet.

We can look at things like Ebola.

Now, Ebola, we haven’t generally had major Ebola epidemics

in the past, not because Ebola wasn’t transmitting

and infecting humans, but because it was largely affecting

and infecting humans in disconnected communities.

So you see out in rural parts of Africa, for example,

in Western Africa, you might end up having

isolated Ebola outbreaks,

but there weren’t connections that were fast enough

that would allow people to then spread it into the cities.

Of course, we saw back in 2014, 15 massive Ebola outbreak

that wasn’t because it was a new strain of Ebola,

but it was because there’s new inroads and connections

between the communities and people got it to the city.

And so we saw it start to spread.

So that should be a little bit foreshadowing

of what’s to come.

And now we have this pandemic.

We had 2009, we have this.

There is a benefit or there is sort of a natural check.

And this is like kind of like a Voltaire

predator prey dynamic kind of systems,

ecological systems and mathematics that

if you have something that’s so deadly,

people will respond more maybe with a greater panic,

a greater sense of panic, which alone could, you know,

destroy humanity.

But at the same time, we now know that we can lock down.

We know that that’s possible.

And so if this was a worse virus

that was actually killing 60% of people as infecting,

we would lock down very quickly.

My biggest fear though, is let’s say that was happening.

You need serious lockdowns if you’re gonna keep things going.

So the only reason we were able to keep things going

during our lockdowns is because it wasn’t so bad

that we were still able to have people work

in the grocery stores.

Still have people work in the shipping

to get the food onto the shelves.

So on the one hand, we could probably figure out

how to stop the virus,

but can we stop the virus without starving?

You know, and I’m not sure that that,

if this was another acute respiratory virus

that say had a slightly, say it transmitted the same way,

but say it actually did worse damage to your heart,

but it was like a month later

that people started having heart attacks in mass.

You know, it’s like not just one offs, but really severe.

Well, that could be a serious problem for humanity.

So in some ways I think that there are lots of ways

that we could end up dying at the hand of a virus.

I mean, we’re already seeing it.

Just, I mean, my fear is still,

I think coronaviruses have demonstrated

a keen ability to destroy or to create outbreaks

that can potentially be deadly to large numbers of people.

Flu strains, though, are still by and large my concern.

So you think the bad one might come from the flu,

the influenza?

Yeah, their replication cycle,

they’re able to genetically recombine

in a way that coronaviruses aren’t.

They have segmented genomes,

which means that they can just swap out

whole parts of their genomes, no problem,

repackage them, and then boom,

you have a whole antigenic shift, not a drift.

What that means is that on any occasion,

any day of the year, you can have, boom,

a whole new virus that didn’t exist yesterday.

And now with farming and industrial livestock,

we’re seeing animals and humans come into contact much more.

Just the opportunities for an influenza strain

that is unique and deadly to humans increases.

All the while, transmission and mobility has increased.

It’s just a matter of time, in my opinion.

What about from immunology perspective

of the idea of engineering a virus?

So not just the virus leaking from a lab or something,

but actually being able to understand the protein,

like everything about what makes a virus enough

to be able to figure out ways to maybe target it

or untarget it, attack biologics.

Subverse immunity.


Is that something, obviously that’s somewhere

on the list of concerns, but is that anywhere close

of the top 10 highlights along with nuclear weapons

and so on that we should be worried about?

Or is the natural pandemic really the one

that’s much greater concern?

I would say that the former, that manmade viruses

and genetically engineered viruses should be right up there

with the greatest concerns for humanity right now.

We know that the tools, for better or worse,

the tools for creating a virus are there.

We can do it.

And I mean, heck, the human species

is no longer vaccinated against smallpox.

I didn’t get a smallpox vaccine.

You didn’t get a smallpox vaccine, at least I don’t think.

And so if somebody wanted to make smallpox

and distribute it to the world in some way,

it could be exceedingly deadly and detrimental to humans.

And that’s not even sort of using your imagination

to create a new virus.

That’s one that we already have.

Unlike the past when smallpox would circulate,

you had large fractions of the community

that was already immune to it.

And so it wouldn’t spread

or it would spread a little bit slower.

But now we have essentially in a few years,

we’ll have a whole global population that is susceptible.

Let’s look at measles.

We have an entire, I mean, measles, I have,

there are some researchers in the world right now,

which for various reasons are working on creating

a measles strain that evades immunity.

It’s not for bioterrorism,

at least that’s not the expectation.

It’s for using measles as an oncolytic virus to kill cancer.

And the only way you can really do that

is if your immune system doesn’t,

if you take a measles virus and there’s,

we don’t have to go into the details of why it would work,

but it could work.

Measles likes to target potentially cancer cells.

But to get your immune system not to kill off the virus

if you’re trying to use the virus to target it,

you maybe want to make it blind to the immune system.

But now imagine we took some virus like measles,

which has an R naught of 18, transmits extremely quickly.

And now we have essentially,

let’s say we had a whole human race

that is susceptible to measles.

And this is a virus that spreads

orders of magnitude easier than this current virus.

Imagine if you were to plug something toxic

or detrimental into that virus and release it to the world.

So it’s possible to be both accidental and intentional.


Yeah, so Mark Lipsitch is a good colleague of mine

at Harvard, we’re both in the,

he’s the director of the Center

for Communicable Disease Dynamics from a faculty member.

He’s spoken very, very forcefully

and he’s very outspoken about the dangers

of gain of function testing,

where in the lab we are intentionally creating viruses

that are exceedingly deadly

under the auspices of trying to learn about them.

So that if the idea is that if we kind of accelerate

evolution and make these really deadly viruses in the lab,

we can be prepared for if that virus ever comes about

naturally or through unnatural means.

The concern though is, okay, that’s one thing,

but what if that virus got out on somebody’s shoe?

Just what if?

If the effects of an accident are potentially catastrophic,

is it worth taking the chances just to be prepared

a little bit for something that may

or may not ever actually develop?

And so it’s a serious ethical quandary we’re in,

how to both be prepared,

but also not cause a catastrophic mistake.

As a small tangent,

there’s a recent really exciting breakthrough of alpha two,

of alpha fold two solving protein folding

or achieving state of the art performance

on protein folding.

And then I thought proteins have a lot to do with viruses.

It seems like being able to use machine learning

to design proteins that achieve certain kinds of functions

will naturally allow you to use maybe down the line,

not yet, but allow you to use machine learning

to design basically viruses,

maybe like measles, like for good,

which is like to attack cancer cells, but also for bad.

Is that a crazy thought

or is this a natural place where this technology may go?

I suppose as all technologies can,

which is for good and for bad.

Do you think about the role of machine learning in this?

Oh yeah, absolutely, I mean, alpha fold is amazing.

It’s an amazing algorithm, a series of algorithms.

And it does demonstrate, to me,

it demonstrates just how powerful,

everything in the world has rules.

We just don’t know the rules.

We often don’t know them,

but our brain has rules, how it works.

Everything is plus and minus.

There’s nothing in the world that’s really not

at its most basic level, positive, negative.

It’s all, obviously, it’s all just charge.

And that means everything.

You can figure it out with enough computational power

and enough, in this case, I mean,

machine learning and AI is just one way to learn rules.

It’s an empirical way to learn rules,

but it’s a profoundly powerful way.

And certainly, now that we are getting to a point

where we can take a protein and know how it folds,

given its sequence, we can reverse engineer that

and we can say, okay, we want a protein to fold this way.

What does the sequence need to be?

We haven’t done that yet so much,

but it’s just the next iteration of all of this.

And so let’s say somebody wants to develop a virus

it’s gonna start with somebody wanting to develop a virus

to defeat cancer, something good.

And so it would start with a lot of money

from the federal government for all the positives

that will come out of it.

But we have to be really careful

because that will come about.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we will develop,

we’re already doing it.

We engineer molecules all the time for specific uses.

Oftentimes, we take them from a lab

and then we take them from a lab and then we make them.

Oftentimes, we take them from nature and then tweak them.

But now we can supercharge it.

We can accelerate the pace of discovery.

To not have it just be discovery,

we have it be true ground up engineering.

Let’s say you’re trying to make a new molecule

to stabilize somebody with some retinal disease.

So we come up with some molecule

to stability of somebody with retinal degeneration.

Just a small tweak to that,

to say make a virus that causes the human race

to become blind.

I mean, it sounds really conspiracy theoryish,

but it’s not.

We’re learning so much about biology

and there’s always nefarious reasons.

I mean, heck, look at how AI and just Google searches,

those can be, they are every single day

being leveraged by nefarious actors

to take advantage of people, to steal money,

to do whatever it might be.

Eventually, probably to create wars

or already to create wars.

And I mean, I don’t think there’s any question at this point

behind disinformation campaigns.

And so it’s being leveraged.

This thing that could be wholly good

is always going to be leveraged for bad.

And so how do you balance that as a species?

I’m not quite sure.

The hope is, as you mentioned previously,

that there’s some, that we were able

to also develop defense mechanisms.

And there’s something about the human species

that seems to keep coming up with ways to,

just like on the deadline,

just at the last moment,

figuring out how to avoid destruction.

I think I’m eternally optimistic about the human race

not destroying ourselves,

but you could do a lot of things

that would be very painful.


Well, we’re doing it already, just,

I mean, we are seeing how our regulation today,

we did this thing, it started as a good thing,

regulation of medical products,

but now it is unwillingly and unintentionally harming us.

Our regulatory landscape,

which was developed totally for good in our country

is getting in the way of us deploying a tool

that could stop our economies

from having to be sort of sputteringly closed,

that could stop deaths from happening

at the rate that they are.

And it’s, I think we will come to a solution.

Of course, now we’re gonna get the vaccine

and it’s gonna make people lose track

of like why we even bother testing, which is a bad idea.

But we’re already seeing that.

We have this amazing capacity to both do damage

when we don’t intend to do damage

and then also to pull up when we need to pull up

and stop complete catastrophe.

And so we are an interesting species in that way,

that’s for sure.

So there’s a lot of young folks, undergrads,

grads, they’re also young, listen to this.

So is there, you’ve talked about a lot of fascinating stuff

that’s like, there’s ways that things are done

and there’s actual solutions

and they’re not always like intersecting.

Do you have advice for undergraduate students

or graduate students or even people in high school now

about a life, about a career of how they might be able

to solve real big problems in the world,

how they should live their life

in order to have a chance to solve big problems

in the world?

It’s hard.

I struggle a little bit sometimes to give advice

because the advice that I give

from my own personal experience is necessarily distinct

from the advice that would make other people successful.

I have unending ambitions to make things better, I suppose.

And I don’t see barricades

where other people sometimes see barricades.

Now, even just little things like when this virus started,

I’m a medical director at Brigham and Women’s Hospital

and so I oversee or helped oversee

molecular virology diagnostics.

So when this virus started, wearing my epidemiology hat

and wearing my sort of viral outbreak hat,

I recognized that this is gonna be a big virus

that was important on a global level.

Even if the CDC and WHO weren’t ready to admit

that it was a pandemic,

it was obvious in January that it was a pandemic.

So I started trying to get a test built at the Brigham,

which is one of Harvard’s teaching hospitals.

The first encounters I had with the upper administration

of the hospital were pretty much, no, why would we do that?

That’s silly, who are you?

And I said, well, okay, don’t believe me, sure.

But I kept pushing on it.

And then eventually I got them to agree.

It was really only a couple of weeks

before the Biogen conference happened.

We started building the test.

I think they started looking abroad and saying,

okay, this is happening, sure, like, maybe he was right.

But then I went a step further and I said,

we’re not gonna have enough tests at the hospital.

And so my ambition was to get a better testing program

started and so I figured what better place

to scale up testing than the Broad Institute.

Broad Institute is amazing, very high throughput,

high efficiency research institute

that does a lot of genomic sequencing, things like that.

So I went to the Broad and I said,

hey, there’s this coronavirus

that’s obviously gonna impact our society greatly.

Can we start modifying your high efficiency instruments

and robots for coronavirus testing?

Everyone in my orbit, in the hospital world,

just said, that’s ridiculous.

How could you possibly plan to do that?

It’s impossible.

And to me, it was like the most dead simple thing to do.

It didn’t, but the higher ups and the people

who think about, I think one of the things

is to recognize that most people in the world

don’t see solutions, they just see problems.

And it’s because it’s an easy thing to do.

Thinking of problems and how things will go wrong

is really easy because you’re not coming up

with a brand new solution.

And this to me was just a super simple solution.

Hey, let’s get the Broad to help build tests.

Every single hospital director told me no,

like it’s impossible.

My own superiors, the ones I report to in the hospital,

said, you know, Mike, you’re a new faculty member.

Your ideas probably would be right,

but you’re too naive and young to know that it’s impossible.

Obviously now the Broad is the highest

throughput laboratory in the country.

And so I think my recommendation to people

is as much as possible, get out of the mode

of thinking about things as problems.

Sometimes you piss people off,

I could probably use a better filter sometimes

to try to like be not so upfront with certain things.

But it’s just so crucial to always just see,

to just bring it, like think about things in new ways

that other people haven’t.

Cause usually there’s something else out there.

And one of the things that has been most beneficial to me,

which is that my education was really broad.

It was engineering and physics.

And well, and then I became a Buddhist monk.

Well, and then I became a Buddhist monk for a while.

And so that gave me a different perspective,

but then it was medicine and immunology.

And now I’ve brought all of it together

from a mathematics and biology and medicine perspective

and policy and public health.

And I think that, you know,

I’m not the best in any one of these things.

I recognize that there are gonna be geniuses out there

who are just worlds better than me

at any one of these things that I try to work on.

But my superpower is bringing them all together,

you know, and just thinking,

and that’s, I think how you can really change the world.

You know, I don’t know that I’ll ever change the world

in the way that I hope.

But that’s how you can have a chance.

Yeah, that’s how you can have a chance, exactly.

And I think it’s also what, you know, this to me,

this rapid testing program,

like this is the most dead simple solution in the world.

And this literally could change the world.

It could change the world.

It could change, and it is, you know,

there’s countries that are doing it now.

The US isn’t, but I’ve been advising many countries on it.

And I would say that, you know,

some of the early papers that we put out earlier on,

a lot of the things actually are changing.

You don’t always, unless you really look hard,

you don’t know where you’re actually having an effect.

Sometimes it’s more overt than other times.

In April, I published a paper that was saying,

hey, with the PCR values from these tests,

we need to really focus on the CT values,

the actual quantitative values

of these lab based PCR tests.

At the time, all the physicians and laboratory directors

told me that was stupid.

You know, why would you do that?

They’re not accurate enough.

And of course, now it’s headline news that, you know,

Florida, they just mandated reporting out the CT values

of these tests, cause there’s a real utility of them.

You can understand public health from it.

You can understand better clinical management.

You know, that was a simple solution

to a pretty difficult problem.

And it is changing.

The way that we approach all of the lab testing

in this country is starting to, it’s taken a few months,

but it’s starting to change because of that.

And, you know, that was just me saying,

hey, this is something we should be focusing on.

Got some other people involved and other people.

And now people recognize, hey, there’s actual value

in this number that comes out of these lab based PCR tests.

So sometimes it does grow fairly quickly.

But I think the real answer,

if my only answer, I don’t know what, you know,

I recognize that everyone, some people are gonna be

really focused on and have one small, but deep skillset.

I go the opposite direction.

I try to bring things together.

And, but the biggest thing I think is just,

don’t see barriers, like just see,

like there’s always a solution to a barrier.

If there’s a barrier,

that literally means there’s a solution to it.

That’s why it’s called a barrier.

And just like you said, most people will just present to you,

only be thinking about it and present to you with barriers.

And so it’s easy to start thinking

that’s all there is in this world.

And just think big.

I mean, God, you know, there’s nothing wrong

with thinking big.

Elon Musk thought big and, you know,

and then thinking big builds on itself.

You know, you get a billion dollars from one big idea

and then that allows you to make three new big ideas.

And there’s a hunger for it if you think big

and you communicate that vision with the world.

All the most brilliant and like passionate people

will just like, you’ll attract them

and they’ll come to you.

And then it makes your life actually really exciting.

The people I’ve met at like Tesla and Neuralink,

I mean, there’s just like this fire in their eyes.

They just love life.

And it’s amazing, I think, to be around those people.

I have to ask you about what was the philosophy,

the journey that took you to becoming a Buddhist monk

and what did you learn about life?

What did you take away from that experience?

How did you return back to Harvard

and the world that’s unlike that experience, I imagine?

Yeah, well, I was at Dartmouth at the time.

Well, I went to Sri Lanka.

I was already pretty interested in developing countries

and sort of under resourced areas.

And I was doing a lot of engineering work

and I went there, but I was also starting to think

maybe health was something of interest.

And so I went to Sri Lanka

because I had a long interest in Buddhism as well,

just kind of interested in it as a thing.

Which aspect of the philosophy attracted you?

I would say that the thing that interested me most

was really this idea of kind of a butterfly effect

of like what you do now has ripple effects

that extend out beyond what you can possibly imagine,

both in your own life and in other people’s lives.

And in some ways, Buddhism has, not in some ways,

in a pretty deep way, Buddhism has that

as part of its underlying philosophy

in terms of rebirth and sort of your actions today

propagate to others, but also propagate

to sort of what might happen in your circle

of what’s called samsara and rebirth.

And I don’t know that I subscribe fully

to this idea that we are reborn,

which always was a little bit of a debate internally,

I suppose, when I was a monk.

But it has always been, it was that

and then it was also meditation.

At the time I was a fairly elite rower.

I was rowing at the national level

and rowing to me was very meditative.

It was just, even if you’re in a boat with other people,

I mean, on the one hand, it’s like the extreme

of like a team sport, but it’s also the extreme

sort of focus and concentration that’s required of it.

And so I was always really into just meditative

type of things.

I was doing a lot of pottery too,

which was also very meditative.

And so Buddhism just kind of really,

there are a lot of things about meditating

that just appealed.

And so I moved to Sri Lanka,

planning to only be there for a couple of months.

And then I was shadowing in this medical clinic

and there was this physician who was just really,

I mean, it’s just kind of a horrible situation.

Frankly, this guy was trained decades earlier.

He was an older physician and he was still just practicing

like these fairly barbaric approaches to medicine

because he was a rural town

and he just didn’t have a lot of,

he didn’t have any updated training, frankly.

And so, I just remember this like girl came in

with like shrapnel in her hand

and his solution was to like air it out.

And so he was like, without even numbing her hand,

he was like cutting it open more with this idea

that like the more oxygen and stuff.

And it just, I think there was something about all of this.

And I was already talking to these monks at the time.

I would be in this clinic in the morning and I’d go

and my idea was to teach English

to these monks in the evening.

Turned out I’m a really bad English teacher.

So they just taught, they allowed me just to sit with them

and meditate and they were teaching me more about Buddhism

than I could have possibly taught them about English

or being an American or something.

And so I just slowly, I just couldn’t take,

I like couldn’t handle being in that clinic.

So more and more, I just started moving to,

spending more and more time at this monastery.

And then after about two months,

I was supposed to come back to the States

and I decided I didn’t want to.

So I moved to this monastery in the mountains

primarily because I didn’t have the money

to like just keep living.

So living in a monastery is free.

And so I moved there and just started meditating

more and more and then months went by

and it just really gravitated.

I gravitated to the whole notion of it.

I mean, it became, it sounds strange,

but meditating almost just like anything

that you’ve put your mind to became exciting.

It became like there weren’t enough hours

in the day to meditate.

And I would do it for 18 hours a day, 15 hours a day,

just sit there and you, and like,

I mean, I hate sleeping anyway,

but I wouldn’t want to go to sleep

because I felt like I didn’t accomplish

what I needed to accomplish in meditation that day,

which is so strange because there is no end,

but it was always, but there are these,

there are these steps that happen during meditation

that are very prescribed in a way.

Buddha talked about them and these are ancient writings,

which exist.

I mean, the writings are real.

They’re thousands of years old now.

And so whether it was Buddha writing them or whoever,

there are lots of different people

who have contributed to these writings over the years.

But they’re very prescribed

and they tell you what you’re gonna go through.

And I didn’t really focus too much on them.

I read a little bit about them,

but your mind really does.

When you actually start meditating at that level,

like not an hour here and there,

but like truly just spending your day as meditating,

it becomes kind of like this other world

where it becomes exciting and you’re actively working,

you’re actively meditating,

not just kind of trying to quiet things.

That’s sort of just the first stage

of trying to get your mind to focus.

Most people never get past that first stage,

especially in our culture.

Could you briefly summarize

what’s waiting beyond the stage of just quieting the mind?

It’s hard for me to imagine that there’s something

that could be described as exciting on there.

Yeah, it’s an interesting question.

So I would say, so the first thing,

the first step is truly just to like be able

to close your eyes, focus on your breath

and not have other thoughts enter into your mind.

That alone is just so hard to do.

Like I couldn’t do it now if I wanted, but I could then.

But once you get past that stage,

you start entering into like all these other,

you go through the kind of,

I went through this like pretty trippy stage,

which is a little bit euphoric

where you just kind of start not hallucinating.

I mean, it wasn’t like some crazy thing

that would happen in a movie,

but definitely just weird.

You start getting into the stage

where you’re able to quiet your mind for so long,

for hours at a time that like for me,

I started getting really excited

about this idea of mindfulness,

which is part of Buddhism in general,

but it’s part of Theravada Buddhism in particular

for this in this way, which was you take,

you start focusing on your daily activities,

whether that’s sipping a cup of tea or walking

or sweeping around.

I lived on this mountainside in this cottage thing,

it was built into the rock.

And so every morning I would wake up early

and sweep around it and stuff,

cause that’s just what we did.

And you start to, you meditate on all those activities.

And one of the things that was so exciting,

which sounds completely ridiculous now

was just almost learning about your daily activities

in ways that you never would have thought about before.

So what’s involved with like picking up this glass of water?

If I said, okay, I’m just gonna pick,

I’m gonna take a drink of water,

to me right now, it’s a single activity.

But during meditation, it’s not a single activity.

It’s a whole series of activities

of like little engineering feats and feelings.

And it’s gripping the water

and it’s feeling that the glass is cold

and it’s lifting and it’s moving and dragging and dragging.

And you start to learn a whole new language of life.

And that to me was like this really exhilarating thing

that it was an exhilarating component of meditation

that there was never enough time.

It’s kind of like learning a new computer language.

Like it gets really exciting when you start coding

and all these new things you can do.

You learn how to experience life in a much richer way.

And so you never run out of ways

to go deeper and deeper and deeper

in the way you experienced even just

the drinking of the glass of water.

That’s exactly right.

And what becomes kind of exhilarating

is you start to be able to predict things

that you never are,

I don’t even have predictions, right word.

But I always think of the matrix,

where I forget who it was,

somebody was shooting at Neo

and he like leans backwards and he dodges the bullets.

In some ways, when you start breaking

every little action that your hands do

or that your feet do or that your body does

down into all these little actions

that make up one what we normally think of as an action,

all of a sudden you can start to see things

almost in slow motion.

I like to think of it very much like language.

The first time somebody hears a foreign language,

it sounds really fast usually.

You don’t hear the spaces between words.

And it just sounds like a stream of consciousness.

And it just sounds like a stream of noises

if you’ve never heard the language before.

And as you learn the language,

you hear clear breaks between words

and it starts to gain context.

And all of a sudden like that,

what once sounded very fast slows down and it has meaning.

That’s our whole life.

Well, there’s this whole language happening

that we don’t speak generally.

But if you start to speak it

and if you start to learn it and you start to say,

hey, I’m picking up this glass

is actually 18 little movements.

Then all of a sudden it becomes extremely exciting

and exhilarating to just breathe.

Breathing alone and the rise and fall of your abdomen

or the way the air pushes in and out of your nose

becomes almost interesting.

And what’s really neat is the world just starts slowing down

and I’ll never forget that feeling.

And if there was one euphoric feeling from meditation

I want to gain back,

but I don’t think I could without really meditating

like that again and I don’t think I will,

was this like slow motion of the world.

It was finding the spaces between all the movements

in the same way that the spaces between all the words happen.

And then it almost gives you this new appreciation

for everything, it was really amazing.

And so I think it came to an abrupt end though

when the tsunami hit.

I was there in the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004.

And it was like this dichotomy of being a monk

and just meditating in this extraordinary place.

And then the tsunami hits and kills 40,000 people

in a few minutes on the coast

of this really small little country in Sri Lanka.

And then my whole world of being a monk

came crashing down.

And when I go to the coast,

and I mean, that was just a devastating visual sight

and emotional sight.

But the strangest thing happened,

which was that everyone just wanted me to stay as a monk.

You know, people in that culture, they wanted to,

the monks largely fled from the coastlines those,

you know, and so then there I was

and people wanted me to be a monk.

They wanted me to stay on the coast,

but be a monk and not help,

like not help in the way that I considered helping.

They wanted me just to keep meditating

so that they could bring me offerings

and have their sort of karmic responsibilities

attended to as well.

And so that was really bizarre to me.

It was like, how could I possibly just sit around

while all these people, half of everyone’s family just died?

And so in any case, I stopped being a monk

and I moved to this refugee camp

and lived there for another six months or so

and just stayed there, not as a monk,

but tried to raise some money from the US

and tried to like, I didn’t know what I was doing.

Frankly, I was 22.

And I don’t think I appreciated at the time

how much of a role I was having in that community’s life.

But it’s taken me many years to process all of this

since then, but I would say it’s what put me

into the public health world, living in that refugee camp.

And that difference that happened,

from being a monk to being in this devastating environment

just really changed my whole view

of sort of why I was existing, I suppose.

Well, so there’s this richness of life

in a single drink of water that you experience,

and then there’s this power of nature

that’s capable to take the lives of thousands of people.

So given all that, the absurdity of that,

let me ask you, and the fact that you study things

that could kill the entirety of human civilization,

what do you think is the meaning of this all?

What do you think is the meaning of life,

this whole orchestra we’ve got going on?

Does it have a meaning?

And maybe from another perspective,

how does one live a meaningful life, if such is possible?

Well, from what I’ve seen,

I don’t think there’s a single answer to that by any stretch.

One of the most interesting things about Buddhism to me

is that the human existence is part of suffering,

which is very different from Judeo Christian existence,

which is that human existence is something to be,

is a very different, it’s something to,

there’s a richness to it.

In Buddhism, it’s just another one of your lives,

but it’s your opportunity to attain nirvana

and become a monk, for example, and meditate

to attain nirvana,

else you kind of just go back into the samsara,

the cycle of suffering.

And so, when I look at, I mean, in some ways,

the notion of life and what the purpose of life is,

they’re kind of completely distinct,

this sort of Western view of life,

which is that this life is the most precious thing

in the world versus this is just another opportunity

to try to get out of life.

I mean, the whole notion of nirvana, and in Buddhism,

it getting out of this sort of cycle of suffering

is to vanish.

If you could attain nirvana throughout this life,

the idea is that you don’t get reborn.

And so, when I look at these two,

on the one hand, you have Christian faith

and other things that want to go to heaven

and live forever in heaven.

Then you have this other whole half of humans

who want nothing more than to get out of the cycle

of rebirth and just, poof, not exist anymore.

The cycle of suffering, yeah.

Yeah, and so how do you reconcile those two?

And I guess.

Do you have both of them in you?

Do you basically oscillate back and forth?

I don’t think I, I think I just,

I look at us and I think we’re just a bunch of proteins.

That we form and we, they work in this really amazing way

and they might work in a bigger scale.

There might be some connections

that we’re not really clear about,

but they’re still biological.

I believe that they’re biological.

How did these proteins become conscious

and why do they want to help civilization

by having at home rapid tests at scale?

Well, I think, I don’t have an answer to that one,

but I really do believe. I was hoping you would.

It’s just, you know, this is just an evolution

of consciousness I don’t, I don’t personally think is,

my feeling is that we’re a bunch of pluses and minuses

that have just gotten so complex

that they’re able to make rich feelings, rich emotions.

And I do believe though, you know, on the one hand,

I sometimes wake up some days,

my fiance doesn’t always love it,

but you know, I kind of think we’re all just a bunch

of robots with like pretty complicated algorithms

that we deal with.

And, you know, in that sense, like, okay,

if the world just blew up tomorrow

and nothing existed the day after that,

it’s just another blip in the universe, you know?

But at the same time, I don’t know.

So that’s kind of probably my most core basic feeling

about life is like, we’re just a blip

and we may as well make the most of it

while we’re here blipping.

It’s one hell of a fun blip though.

It is, it’s an amazing blink of an eye in time.

Michael, this is, you’re one of the most interesting people

I’ve met, one of the most interesting conversations,

important ones now, I’m going to publish it very soon.

I really appreciate taking the time,

I know how busy you are, it was really fun.

Thanks for talking today.

Well, thanks so much, this was a lot of fun.

Thanks for listening to this conversation

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And now, let me leave you with some words

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It is not the critic who counts.

Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles

or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who actually is in the arena,

whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,

who strives valiantly, who errs,

who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming,

but who does actually strive to do the deeds,

who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions,

who spends himself in a worthy cause,

who at the best knows in the end that triumph

of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails,

at least fails while daring greatly,

so that his place shall never be

with those cold and timid souls

who neither know victory nor defeat.

Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

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