Gopi Mattel, based in silicon valley, serves as General Partner and CEO at Lifeboat Ventures, a venture fund that creates disaster impact mitigation startups. He is the Founder/CEO of CellarStone, Inc., Director at Founder Institute, and Advisor for Pepperdine University’s Most Fundable Companies program. The views expressed are his own.
Anyone remember the SARS virus outbreak in 2003? 50 percent of infected older people died from the original SARS virus and the general fatality rate was 14%. SARS spread fast through the air or contact and killed fast. About 8000 people got sick but they were spread across 29 countries due to air travel. It was able to spread into so many countries because of the new age of air travel and globalization. There was a lot of panic around that time but it died down after the virus was under control.
This second variation of the SARS virus (SARS-COV-2 or COVID-19 or Coronavirus) has sickened 70 Million people and killed 1.6 Million people. We are about 1 year into this particular pandemic with another full year to go at least, before it is brought under control. This virus has about a 2.3% fatality rate.
The COVID-19 virus not only killed a lot of people, but it also damaged the global economy to the tune of Trillions of dollars. Countless people have damaged health, lost jobs, lost businesses and gotten evicted from their houses.
Why did this happen, given that we actually had a warning with a virus from the same family. And what will happen the next time another such virus spreads across the world?
There are a number of reasons for why we are at this point with this pandemic. Globalization, close association with animals, lack of basic knowledge about viruses in the population, abandoning research efforts into the original SARS, disregard of science and evidence, poor leadership, etc. But the one other reason is not taking appropriate steps to curtail future air-borne diseases.
Imagine the next virus from a different family, that spreads by air and contact, incubates in the host for 14 days without symptoms but kills within 17 days at the rate of the original SARS virus. A lot more people will get infected because of the slow incubation and a lot more will people will die due to the fatality rate. What will be the consequences to human society?
We didn’t really learn the lesson of the warning and set up preventive measures from the original SARS virus outbreak. What if we had required that all common areas where people congregate had requirements to sterilize the air of viruses. It would have made an enormous impact on the virus spread. It would have slowed down the spread of the virus to a very significant effect and maybe even dropped the R0 value of contagiousness to below 1.
This would have slowed down the transmission of the virus, protected lives and the economy, and allowed scientists a chance to develop the vaccine in time to really preserve human life and prevent societal harm.
Over time there have been solutions to reduce the ill-health and fatality due to microbes. Restaurants are now required to clean their dishes at a specific temperature of heat. Unpasteurized milk is illegal. Chicken processing plants are required to test for Salmonella. Laws have been passed in the past to reduce impact of known disease vectors.
Similarly, laws are being passed now. Such as AB685 in California and ALSB1 in Alabama. More laws will be coming to protect people. But this may not be enough. Business has a role to play. Even without specific laws, businesses have produced anti-bacterial soaps and other solutions to help people stay healthy. But the business solutions tend to be piecemeal and not very robust.
Venture capital, which is particularly suited for innovative, large-scale ideas, has not yet made its mark in the prevention of pandemics. There are several companies out there creating solutions to fix the infection after it has entered a person. There are several vaccine startups working on the problem. The venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers created a $200M fund to fight pandemics 14 years ago, and many of those startups are in the frontlines fighting this pandemic with vaccines and treatments. We need more startups to prevent the spread of virus and reduce the R0 value of the illnesses. And venture capital must play a part here.
Many customer-facing small businesses have been damaged greatly by this pandemic. Restaurants, retail outlets, personal care businesses have all seen a massive loss of business. Many of them tend to be mom-and-pop businesses where whole families’ income is affected. Business closings and bankruptcies have risen.
Most of these small business locations have heating, ventilation, and cooling systems (HVAC) available. These systems recirculate all the air in the location typically within 20 minutes. We know of technologies such as ultraviolet rays that can kill virus and bacteria completely. What if there was a virus filter component that can be added to the HVAC system that can completely kill the virus in the recirculating air. This can dramatically reduce the risk of virus spreading events at these locations. Matched with some sort of certification and badge it can provide confidence to consumers to frequent these businesses. They will comply with the laws that are coming. They will also help reduce other infections such as the flu. Venture capital can fund such startups and help them scale rapidly.
There are other ideas that can funded:
- Spraying of anti-microbial copper alloy on all contact surfaces at health centers to reduce hospital-acquired infections, on an annual basis.
- Anonymized temporary contact Id for individuals that allow for contact tracing with user permission, but keeps the privacy of the user intact.
Lifeboat Ventures, is thinking about this and a few more ideas to fund in its quest to mitigate disaster impact on society.
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