The Seattle community is about two weeks ahead of the rest of the US in adapting to our new coronavirus-driven reality.
My three kids have been out of school for two weeks now.
Although incomparable with the challenges facing our health system, as all parents of young children know, having them at home all day, every day without the structure of school can be something of an unmitigated disaster (my husband just asked me at 2 pm “is it too early to start drinking?”)
Our last restaurant meal seems a distant and lovely memory: a 20th anniversary dinner at our gem of a favorite local restaurant — How to Cook a Wolf on Seattle’s Queen Anne hill.
We are now worried that this wonderful small business might permanently shut.
More seriously, the epidemic is becoming personal as people in Seattle have started to sicken and die, including a beloved professor in the UW community (Steve Schwartz) and, today, the father of a friend of a friend.
At risk of being maudlin (Luke has assured me that “biotech people are people too”) I thought I would share the cycle of emotions that I have experienced over the last few weeks:
- Skepticism. In my previous job at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we lived through crisis response to H1N1 in 2009 and Ebola in 2014. When this new coronavirus first emerged, I viewed it as another case of an infectious diseases that creates hysteria in a country pampered by developed world healthcare. My friends in Africa have to deal with their families getting sick with and dying of malaria and other infectious diseases every day. I even wrote on Feb. 7 about how ill-prepared we are for pandemics.
- Frustration. As we started getting calls from serious people who are not prone to hysteria, I started to take it very seriously. Modeling work at the Institute for Disease Modeling suggested worrisome community spread in Seattle. Direct reports from doctors in the overwhelmed health system in Italy indicated that this was — in technical terms — a “very gnarly virus.” Having worked with the most skilled people in the world at managing epidemics at the CDC and WHO, I assumed that we would have our best people on it. Yet, as any board member knows, leadership matters. The US national leadership response was delusional and narcissistic, with direct and dire consequences to Seattle because of limited and faulty testing.
- Fear. To be effective in the world of biotech startups you have to have an optimistic belief that science, when well-executed, can solve problems. But as schools and non-essential services began to shut down, I realized viscerally how little control we actually have over our biological world. My brain, and that of my friends and neighbors, became infected by the most basic of fears: of sickness of children, of death of parents, of social unrest, of unknown outcomes. These fears were exacerbated by the lack of data about the scope and scale of the spread in Seattle.
- Guilt. Many of my friends at the Gates Foundation, including our own venture partner Mike Poole, galvanized to coordinate local and global responses and to fast track therapeutic and vaccine development. Meanwhile, I am making Annie’s Mac & Cheese for my kids. I wish I could do more. But as my former boss Sue Desmond-Hellmann often said: you have to know when to be a leader and when to be a follower. I am not an expert in epidemiology or vaccine development or even intubation. The best thing I can do right now is to support the people who are.
Which brings me to the final emotion, which is my predominant one these days. I have four objects of love in this time of coronavirus:
- For science, and for scientists. For the first time, I logged on to Twitter and it is extraordinary to see how quickly scientists are learning and adapting. My favorite pandemic crush is our hometown hero Trevor Bedford whom, with his team at the Seattle Flu Study, is tracking the genomic epidemiology of the virus. On Feb. 29, he provided the first coherent explanation of the uncontained community spread in King County and more recently a recommendation for the steps we would need to take as a society to actually contain the pandemic. I still have faith that we will eventually find a way out of this mess because of scientists and the leaders who listen to scientists. Our own Governor, Jay Inslee, has been a steady hand and is clearly listening to scientists. And will somebody please let former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb run the country?
- For caretakers. The doctors and health workers on the frontline in Seattle and elsewhere are the soldiers of this pandemic, putting their lives on the line without access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or other essential life-saving equipment. This hits as close to home as it gets. Our kid’s favorite babysitter who works in a health clinic just got exposed to the virus from a patient. My second pandemic crush is the CEO of one of our portfolio companies, Farzad Mostashari. He was the national coordinator of health IT in the Obama Administration. Now with his team at Aledade, he has been fighting to get PPE and telehealth options to his network of Primary Care Physicians while also sharing his knowledge of data and epidemiology. More personally, my kid’s teachers have seamlessly shifted to patiently teaching via remote learning five hours a day, and are the only thing preventing complete havoc in our household.
- For innovators. I am so proud of the biotech community’s response, and how companies that I have worked with — Vir Biotechnology, Moderna, CureVac — have quickly initiated development of therapeutics and vaccines. My third pandemic crush is Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel. Despite being regularly sniffed at by critics who see Moderna as being overhyped and overvalued, he has sustained his unassailable belief in Moderna’s mRNA platform and its ability to save lives. Moderna has the first COVID-19 vaccine in trials, right here in Seattle. I am so hopeful that despite the challenges of an as yet unproven technology — and the impossibly fast timelines being demanded — that this one will work. More personally, Seattle’s fanciest fine dining restaurant Canlis has come up with a surprising innovation of its own — a new business model as a drive-thru burger joint and bagel shop (Fast Company article here) which is saving people’s mental lives through pure happiness.
- For my people. A strange thing has happened in the last two weeks. I have group text strings with colleagues and friends checking on each other. I get calls and texts from people that I normally only talk to about work just to make each other laugh. We are normally so busy and caught up with work that we don’t interact with each other personally. It has taken a pandemic to realize how much I love my people, in the biotech community and beyond, and how glad I am that they are in my life.
I believe that this ethic of love and community support for each other will spread faster than the virus. The biotech community has already mobilized and so many people in the Seattle community are doing their best to help each other under the hash tag #wegotthisseattle (see the Seattle Mayor’s Resource Center and You Are Here for ways to donate to Seattle community organizations).
The scientists and innovators will eventually get us out of this mess, and the caretakers will keep us alive, but in the meantime, it is love and connectedness within our communities that will sustain us.
Julie Sunderland is co-founder and managing director of Biomatics Capital Partners. Prior to co-founding Biomatics Capital Partners in 2016, Ms. Sunderland was director of Program Related Investments for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ms. Sunderland sits on the Board of Directors for several of Biomatics’ portfolio companies including Aledade, BlackThorn, eGenesis and Verana.