Rosbash Tapped for Manhattan Project-Style COVID-19 Advisory Group

A talk with the Nobel laureate about his new role.

Michael Rosbash leans against a counter in his kitchen, holding a mug.
Mike Lovett
Michael Rosbash

It’s being billed as a new Manhattan Project: a dozen of the world’s top scientists, backed by support from business titans and billionaires, working together on a plan to fight COVID-19.

Among these scientists is Michael Rosbash, the Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience, who, along with Jeff Hall, professor emeritus of biology, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on circadian rhythms.

The group, officially known as Scientists to Stop COVID-19, was formed somewhat spontaneously in March, with the encouragement of Boston investor Tom Cahill.

A month later, it completed a report laying out a program for treating COVID-19 patients in the short term, safely reopening the economy and developing a vaccine. It continues to meet remotely at least once if not several times a day to update its recommendations as new information comes in.

“We are a group of passionate citizen-scientists who offer four actionable, nonpartisan proposals to produce safe and effective COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines in the shortest possible time frame, and to reopen our society in a manner that reduces the risk of future COVID-19 outbreaks,” the scientists wrote in the report’s opening statement.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Cahill’s “backdoor” channels to the White House have enabled him to deliver the report to top Trump administration officials, including cabinet members and Vice President Mike Pence. The newspaper said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, has indicated he agrees with most of the group’s advice.

Here, Rosbash discusses his Scientists to Stop COVID-19 work and his outlook on the pandemic.

How have the White House and the federal government responded to the panel’s report?

I think they’re genuinely interested, but what happens next is a little bit of a black box, in my opinion. That’s not to be negative. I just mean, I don’t know the answer.

I think we’ve had a real impact at the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. We pushed them to interact with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals [the biotech company developing monoclonal antibody therapeutics for the virus], and they very quickly did that.

We’ve tried to steer clear of politically charged statements or opinions. I don’t think there’s a lot of short-term mileage to be gained by placing blame or criticism. Right now, let’s focus on the science and what can be done to move forward.

In its report, the panel expressed support for the drug remdesivir. It was approved to reduce the recovery time for COVID-19 patients, but the panel thinks its health benefits could be much greater than demonstrated so far.

We have three reasons for thinking the drug might be much more effective than indicated.

First, it’s been used at suboptimal doses. We think it will be more effective at higher doses. Second, it should be used earlier — as soon as a patient starts to experience symptoms. In this disease, by the time you know the virus has appeared, you’re critically ill, so the real battle between the immune system and the virus is being waged early in the course of infection; that’s when you want to hit the patient with the drug. Third, we think an inhaled version of the drug, which has not been made yet, is likely to be much more effective either alone or in combination with the intravenous use of the drug.

If a therapeutic like remdesivir proves to have a really major positive impact, it changes the whole landscape, because you might be able to bring the death rate down, which means you might be able to open up the economy a little faster. So all these things intersect, and you need only one or two of them to hit in a positive way, and then the picture changes quite a bit.

The report also stresses the vital role the federal government must play, especially in leading the effort to develop a vaccine.

There are now more than 70 vaccine attempts all around the world, and that’s a good thing, but I think, in very short order, there have to be some winners picked and federal resources placed behind them. And so coordination is important. Really, that’s got to happen across the board, with regard to therapeutics, vaccines and testing. The new warp-speed vaccine effort by the White House is along the lines of what we have recommended.

Is science up to this challenge?

The speed with which this has to be done is what makes the science both interesting and extremely challenging, because we do not have time to do business as usual. Normally, science is built brick by brick. Scientists are very cautious; you do something slowly because you’re not sure at the outset what it means. We just can’t do that now. There’s too much at stake. So that puts a knot in your stomach.

But scientists are optimists. That’s why, despite the fact that most experiments fail, they keep going forward. You know, tomorrow’s going to be a bright, sunny day, even if the past 12 days were miserable. So I’m cautiously optimistic.

In order to safely reopen workplaces and schools, the panel makes a number of recommendations, including testing people multiple times per week via saliva; requiring everyone to wear surgical masks, which it says are more effective than cloth masks; and requiring employees and students to certify — via a smartphone app — before leaving home that they are not experiencing certain COVID-19 symptoms.

How do we reopen the economy in the best way possible and as safely as possible? That’s the challenge now, and it’s a fairly massive undertaking. We are now revising and revamping this section [of the report] to provide the state and federal governments with more guidance.

If it doesn’t happen, the world will collapse. So we are going to do it. South Korea has done it, the rest of Asia has done it, Germany’s doing it — we’re gonna have to do it. I mean, whether it happens in a small town in the Midwest, who knows? But Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle — all our major metropolises are going to have to do it. There are just no two ways about it.

But maybe in a year and a half, it’ll be over, hopefully. And then we’ll be telling our children and grandchildren stories about this period in our lives.