Nobel Prize winner Michael Rosbash on the future of the pandemic

Rosbash serves on a panel of world-famous scientists proposing solutions to the health crisis. Backed by business titans, they have the White House's ear.

Michael RosbashMike Lovett

Michael Rosbash

They're billing it as a Manhattan Project to fight the coronavirus — twelve of the world's most prominent scientists backed by a group of business titans and billionaires, all working together on a plan to fight COVID-19.

Among their members: Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience Michael Rosbash.

In 2017, Rosbash along with Professor Emeritus Jeff Hall won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on circadian rhythms.

The group, officially known as Scientists to Stop Covid-19, was formed in March, somewhat spontaneously and 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 timeframe, 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.

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 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins has indicated he agrees with most of the group's advice.

Rosbash discussed his work for Scientists to Stop Covid-19 and his outlook on the pandemic.

BNOW: How have the White House and federal government responded to the panel's report?

ROSBASH: 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. We pushed them to interact with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals [the biotech company developing monoclonal antibody therapeutics for the virus] and they very quickly did that. So that was evidence that we really had an impact and they were listening.

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. I think there will be a time for that with the election coming up. Right now, let's focus on the science and what can be done to move forward.

BNOW: 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.

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

First, it's been used at sub-optimal doses. We think it will be more effective and should be used at higher doses.

Number two, it should be used earlier — as soon as a patient starts to experience symptoms and not later when they're very ill. 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 and 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 there's a therapeutic like remdesivir that proves to have a really major positive impact, it changes the whole landscape because that means that you might be able to bring the death rate down, which means that you might be able to open up the economy a little faster. So all of these things intersect and you only need one or two of them to hit in a positive way and then the picture changes quite a bit.

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

ROSBASH: 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 then federal resources placed behind those.

And so I think 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.

BNOW: Is science up to this challenge?

ROSBASH: 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 and 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 last 12 days were miserable. So I'm cautiously optimistic.

BNOW: 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 before leaving home via a smartphone app that they are not experiencing certain COVID-19 symptoms.

ROSBASH: How do we reopen the economy as best as 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, Asia has done it, Germany's doing it — we're gonna have to do it.

I mean, whether in a small town in the Midwest, it happens, 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.

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