US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — America’s top ten scientists and a group of billionaires and industrial magnates say they have an answer to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. And another important point: they allegedly found a way through the back door to the White House in order to transfer their plan there.
The motley group is led by a 33-year-old former doctor who changed this profession to the profession of venture capitalist, Tom Cahill. This investor lives far from the centers of public attention – in a small rented one-bedroom apartment near Fenway Park in the American city of Boston. His property is small, but he has enough senior friends to influence the decisions of the US government regarding the Covid-19.
These scholars and their supporters describe their work as a Manhattan project of our day, similar to the one during World War II, when a large group of scientists came together to help [the Western world] get the atomic bomb. This time, scientists are gathering money and brains together to identify and subordinate to the common goal the unusual, innovative ideas for combating coronavirus that they have gathered around the world.
They call themselves “Scientists to Stop Covid-19” (Scientists to Stop Covid-19), and among them are chemists, biologists, neurologist, chrono-biologist, oncologist, gastroenterologist, epidemiologist and nuclear physicist. The biologist Michael Rosbash, Nobel Prize Laureate for 2017, spoke best of all about these scientists, grouped at the center of the project: “Without a doubt, I’m the most unskilled among them.”
This group, whose work was not previously reported, acted as a link between pharmaceutical companies looking for a respectable representative who would present their work to decision makers in the Trump administration. The members of the group work remotely as a hastily assembled control commission that monitors the entire flow of research by scientists on coronavirus. The goal is to pull out all the dead-end branches from this flow of knowledge before the results of research reach people who make political decisions.
The group ultimately came together to formulate a 17-page squeeze report calling for unusual methods of fighting the virus. Their central idea is to treat patients with powerful drugs that were previously used against Ebola, but only with much more powerful, shock doses than was done in the past.
The US Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have already implemented some of the group’s recommendations. One of them is to remove some of the norms and requirements that previously applied to individual anti-coronavirus drugs.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health, said last month that he agreed with most of the recommendations in the report – WSJ knows this from documents that were in the possession of the newspaper, as well as from interviews with people who understand this situation. The report was also presented to members of the administration and personally to Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the interagency special group aimed at combating coronavirus.
The main strength of Dr. Cahill is the communications accumulated during his time at the investment firm. They include billionaires such as Peter Thiel, Jim Palotta and Michael Milken – financiers who introduced him to politicians, making him “legitimate” in this narrow circle, and even in the midst of the crisis. Dr. Cahill and his team often often consulted Nick Ayers, a longtime assistant to Mr. Pence, as well as other high-ranking officials, all over the telephone over the course of a “self-isolated” month.
No one in the group hopes to get rich on this. Team members say they are motivated by the ability to add their own connections and rigorously scientific knowledge to the overall effort to fight coronavirus. But this struggle was in many ways difficult – both at the federal level and at the level of individual states.
“It could very well be that all our work was in vain,” said Stuart Schreiber, a chemist at Harvard University and a member of the group. “But if we succeed, it can change the whole world.”
Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics basketball team and co-chairman of the board of directors of the financial company Bain Capital, is one of the investors of Dr. Cahill. He also helped prepare drafts of the final report and handed them copies to the head of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. To David Solomon. And Mr. Solomon handed them over to the Minister of Finance Stephen Mnuchin (Steven Mnuchin).
Members of the group acknowledge that they know that many of their ideas may not be realized, or it may happen that all their work will be ignored by the Trump administration. And we know this from conversations with scientists, business circles, government officials, as well as from reviews of documents related to this area.
Just two years ago, Dr. Cahill was still studying, working on his master’s work and preparing for the Ph.D. race at Duke University. His research area is rare genetic diseases. Studying did not bring the Golden Mountains – I had to go in cheap Costco trousers. The young scientist assumed that after graduation he would work in the same field.
And instead, everything was decided by a renewed acquaintance with an old friend who recommended him to work at his father’s company, the Raptor Group, a popular investor company that is professionally engaged in profitable investments.
Dr. Cahill focused on the issue of investment – primarily on medical investment in areas aimed at prolonging human life. He decided this way: I will bring more benefit by highlighting promising scientists and solving their financial and scientific problems than if I will do research myself.
After a period at Raptor, Dr. Cahill set up his own Newpath Partners foundation. The fund has 125 million, and it was formed from a small group of wealthy investors. Among them was Mr. Til, a longtime resident of Silicon Valley, and founders of private investment groups such as Mr. Paliuc. They were attracted to the direct approach to the matter by Dr. Cahill, as well as his interest in solving problems that were considered unsolvable.
In early March, as the number of victims of Covid-19 grew, Dr. Cahill was intrigued and a little saddened by the low level of research on this issue. “Science and medicine seemed to have nothing to do with it – they were the most remote areas from what was happening,” he said.
Investors bombarded him with questions about the virus, and he organized an online conference to share with them some unconventional ideas on how to speed up drug development and similar processes. Dr. Cahill expected 20 people to attend.
And so, when Dr. Cahill tried to join an online conference, the system simply rejected his call, because it had reached its limits. But then his cell phone rang – someone dialed it from New York. It was the financial manager of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Adam Silver. Dr. Cahill subsequently gave him a personal consultation.
The investment base of the Newpat Foundation is guys with deep pockets full of money, so they quickly notified their colleagues that some of the NBA phoned, and even with an important financial position. As a result, hundreds of people soon joined online conferences, many of whom had never met. Among them was Mr. Milken.
When he finally phoned and joined the conference of this huge group, Dr. Cahill took a deep breath and said that he worked with friends on the following task: to weed out unsuccessful treatment options and to leave only the most promising victory over Covid-19 from all potential methods. Dr. Cahill said that he had practically stopped other types of investment activities, focusing only on the hunt for treatment.
An hour after he disconnected from the conference, Dr. Cahill discovered that his inbox was filled with ideas and suggestions for help. Some came from Mr. Milken’s team. “For 50 years now I have been doing medical research, and I have never seen such a level of cooperation as today,” says Mr. Milken.
Dr. Cahill received a handful of the suggestions made by the vice president’s advisers. They also participated in a video conference. So the investor scientist got a platform for his work. Now all he needed was a plan.
Dr. Cahill made one of the first calls to Mr. Schreiber, the founder of several private companies.
And Mr. Schreiber brought in an old friend, Edward Skolnik, the former head of research and development at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., where he helped develop 28 new drugs and vaccines. Dr. Skolnik said bluntly: the vaccine will need at least 18 months to enter the market, and even, as he put it, “if you are damn lucky.”
Mr. Schreiber replied to Skolnik: “What about six months?”
The team made a list of about two dozen companies that could benefit from the recommendations of the [investment-scientific group], and also promised to sell any block of shares immediately. One member of the group said that he was not ready for such strict rules, and he was kicked out of the team.
Most of the work at the beginning of the project was to sift through hundreds of scientific studies on this crisis, written all over the world. Promising ideas were separated from ambiguous ones. Each team member sifted up to 20 scientific papers per day – the pace is 10 times faster than under normal conditions at work. Members of the group gathered at a video conference, exchanging impressions, endlessly “texting” each other’s impressions – like “a bunch of teenagers,” Mr. Rosbash joked.
Communication was so close that it violated personal space. Michael Lin, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, began turning off the camera on his mobile so that he would no longer be forced to go wherever he was. “Every couple of days I had seven or eight ZOOM conferences. I suspect that this lifestyle can cause something like a disease,” jokes David Lew, a biochemist at Harvard University.
The debate was not always purely scientific. The group discussed, for example, whether it is worth renaming the virus to SARS-2, in honor of the virus that arose in China in 2003, which was definitely of animal origin. The members of the group justified this decision by saying that reminders of SARS would sound worse and force people to wear masks. But then they abandoned this idea.
The team promised to try to stay out of politics – and this is not an easy task in the midst of the noise and fury of the election year, and even before the presidential election in November.
Hydroxylochlorin, the antimalarial drug proposed by the president, was rejected after the group’s expert, Ben Kravatt, from the city of La Jolla, California, determined that this medicine was, at best, a step in the right direction. Kravatt represented a reputable research firm Scripps Research. As a result, the drug promoted by Trump deserved only a brief mention in the final report of the group.
The group also abandoned the idea of using antibody testing in order to allow people to return to work if their test results made it possible to claim that they had recovered from the virus. Mr. Kravatt, a biochemist, announced that it was “the worst idea I have heard in my entire life.” He said that the fact that a person had been ill with a coronavirus does not mean safety on his part for those around him. Such a person can infect others. Plus, the fact that excessive emphasis on antibody testing can tempt some people to deliberately infect themselves in order to get antibodies and subsequently receive a certificate of the absence of any infectious threat.
The first three phases of the group’s recommendations in this report focus on how the federal government can help fight the virus. For example, a government may buy medicines whose effectiveness has not yet been proven. Thus, manufacturers will have an incentive to increase production without shivering from fear of losses if the medicine does not work. Another suggestion is to reduce the time required for clinical trials of a new medicine to a week, and not wait from 9 months to a year, as was customary before.
Then the group needed to get recommendations from the right people in the Trump administration. For this, Dr. Cahill used the resources of another senior billionaire.
Presented to the right people
Brian Sheth, co-founder of Vista Equity Partners, a privately held investment firm, as well as a committed Democrat, watched the band’s efforts grow in strength but did so from a distance – from their home in Austin, Texas. He invested in Dr. Cahill’s fund early on and also participated in the first online conference. But Brian Shet’s specialization was in technology, not immunology.
He became a friend of Thomas Hicks Jr., a businessman from Dallas and co-chairman of the National Republican Committee. Mr. Shet introduced Dr. Cahill’s group to Mr. Hicks.
And so a connection arose between a group of predominantly liberal scientists from left-oriented scientific organizations – and a republican mastodon who goes to shoot ducks with Donald Trump Jr.
In his first conversation with the group, Mr. Hicks said: “I am not a scientist. Just explain to me what is happening, and then show me where the red tape is here. ”
It turned out that the main concern of scientists was the Administration for Supervision of the Turnover of Food Products and Medicines. Scientists have discovered in the research process special monoclonal drugs based on antibodies that seem to invade the cells of the virus. It was these drugs that scientists declared the most promising treatment. But in order to produce such medicines in sufficient quantities, one of the manufacturers is Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. – I was forced to transfer production to Ireland. The requirements of the Administration for the Supervision of the Turnover of Food and Drugs suggested that the initial approval for production should wait at least a month.
Mr. Skolnik, who remembers his struggle with the bureaucracy since the AIDS epidemic, tried to contact the Food and Drug Administration. But his call didn’t lead to anything good, because bureaucrats told the group that their pandemic was already under control. And then, at a group meeting, one of the scientists said about the Food and Drug Administration, “Here they are, and the problem.”
Dr. Cahill contacted Mr. Ayers. After the group complained to the vice president’s adviser about the narrow neck of the Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Ayers said, “I know who to call.” That evening, Regeneron received an urgent call from the Food and Drug Administration. They received permission to conduct production where they consider it necessary.
“It showed that what we tried to do worked,” Mr. Rosbash said.
The group also tried to tread the track in VA, the largest healthcare system in the United States. Scientists have lobbied for permission for people who have already done research on Covid-19 to join ongoing research, say, in prostate cancer. The goal is to find out if already approved drugs can work against the virus. They talked with the VA chief physician about their proposal and suddenly found out that their initiative was given the greenest light and it was being implemented hastily.
Mr. Paliuca spoke to Charles Baker, Republican Governor of Massachusetts, over the telephone about the group’s report. According to Paliuc, the governor plans to take into account some elements of the plan worked out by the group.
Now that a significant part of the scientific proposals is already in the process of implementation, the group has “laid eyes on” the development of scenarios of how the world will live after a pandemic. Mr. Paliuc suggested adding another item to the plan – how to open America after conservation.
Scientists’ ideas include the development of saliva tests. In addition, it is proposed to conduct tests at the end at the end of the working day, so that the results are ready by morning. Scientists also suggested introducing a special smartphone application around the country that would force all residents to confirm every day that none of them have 14 symptoms of the common cold or flu.
Group members continued their discussions with administration officials over the past few days. Their hope is that the privately developed secret plan will be put into effect.
“To defeat this [coronavirus], we need the whole nation: government, business, and science,” Mr. Paliuca said.
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