Saturday, April 25th, 2020

I got deep into the weeds this afternoon trying to read up on a proposed approach to getting the global pandemic under control. Once you get started with some of this material, linking deeper and deeper to scientific papers and forums where the politics and attitudes about collective action have a way of drowning out all the discourse, one pulls back (okay, I pull back) from the screen and shakes his (my) head and says “all these pathways of communication and this is the best we can do”?

Let me back up. The proposed approach appeared to me first in a Hacker News-linked blog post—posted Friday!—by a guy named Paul Buchheit, who I had never heard of, but his Wikipedia entry (he proudly or conveniently links to it on his blog) He’s 47. Early employee for Google. Worked on Gmail. Worth roughly $600 million, and doesn’t need to work now. All that aside, his thesis is: it’s really important for us to avoid contact with people who have the disease to prevent its spread. The only way to that goal is super mega ultra testing. He advocates ubiquitous daily screening (he put it in bold face, so I did too.) So like…everyone, every day. You get a read right away whether you’ve become infected. If you have, you’re quarantined.

This sounds a little like science fiction and makes my dreams of a medical tricorder a teeny bit less fuzzy.

But apparently the science-fact or the science-it-could-be-this-way behind the dream is something called LSPR or Surface Plasmon Resonance testing. Give an automated box some saliva, and for (at scale) less than $1 per test, you detect the presence of specific proteins on the surface of COVID-19. (The teeniness we’re talking about boggles my mind.)

He then says “We’re planning to start operating the first scanner within a month. It’s a fully automated system, similar to a kiosk or turnstile. If all goes well, there will be millions of scanners deployed by this fall”…and then says “My goal for the year 2020 is to wipe out COVID-19. That sounds unrealistic, but once we have demonstrated that viral screening is possible and effective, I believe that the benefits of this approach will become overwhelmingly obvious and institutions around the world will rush to embrace this solution. This is a startup effort, so our success is far from guaranteed. This is why I want to raise awareness of this strategy…”

The comments attached to this post at HN run the gamut of discussing the potential of the idea to challenging the concept that the virus is something we must expend huge energies to track and fight to questioning who this “we” is that is developing this box/kiosk/thing. Good question, that last! The ‘we’, I eventually parsed, is a company called PreDxion Bio, Inc. They’re in Ann Arbor, and their founders have some University of Michigan roots. The website is just barely a placeholder.

And so I roll away from the screen with some slight overlay of hopefulness, and try to imagine a world where concrete answers to what we want…need to know, are just a spit-beep-boop away.