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Tech's Next Disruption Target: The Coronavirus

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6 days ago Asa Fitch, Rolfe Winkler, Deepa Seetharaman
Kevin Systrom holding a camera © Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg News

Silicon Valley’s technology whizzes are mobilized to fight the coronavirus, trying to hack everything from disease modeling to elder care and medical-device manufacturing.

Yet it isn’t clear how best to apply the industry’s talents for on-the-fly innovation to a fast-moving pandemic, or whether the U.S.’s wellspring of disruption can make major contributions to solving society’s biggest crisis in decades.

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Thousands of volunteers from the tech world have begun pitching in on hundreds of hastily assembled projects over the past two weeks, as the virus ravaged Europe and spread in the U.S. Many are concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area, which locked down before most of the country, leaving thousands of talented techies with spare time to brainstorm coronavirus-related projects.

Some are developing apps, like one to deliver groceries to vulnerable elderly people. Others want to help get masks to doctors. One of the most ambitious projects, which Silicon Valley investor Sam Altman helped organize, aims to build a million low-cost ventilators in three months. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom, among others, has become an armchair epidemiologist, modeling the spread of the virus and sharing his findings with experts.

Mr. Systrom, while holed up in his Montana home for several weeks, built a model to predict the spread of the virus and published it online. Leaning on his experience watching Instagram’s viral growth, combined with some data science knowledge he has picked up since leaving Instagram in 2018, he predicted that the U.S. would have 10,000 cases by March 19, about the time it passed that mark.

Mr. Systrom said he did his analysis, which has been shared with policy makers, because he felt many of the existing models were either too dismissive or too alarmist. “The cost of being quiet on something like this seemed so incredibly high.”

According to Mr. Systrom’s model, cases of coronavirus in the U.S. will surpass China’s total 81,000 cases by midweek and 250,000 by the beginning of next week. As of Wednesday, there were 65,285 confirmed cases in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.

The world’s biggest tech companies have jumped at the opportunity to help. Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, put its DeepMind artificial-intelligence unit onto the task of finding a vaccine, and its Verily life-sciences research unit is working on virus detection. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is working with San Francisco hospitals to expand testing, and Facebook is donating reserves of 720,000 masks to health workers.

The efforts come after several years of backlash against the tech industry by politicians, regulators and members of the public who feel it has applied its powers in ways that have been frivolous or even harmful. Facebook, Google and Amazon.com Inc. have all come under the microscope for how they handle people’s personal data as they try to improve their services and make more money.

As it seeks to offer help, some worry Silicon Valley will just get in the way.

“I think technologists often see themselves as the solution rather than a component of the solution,” says Harper Reed, a computer scientist by training who was chief technology officer of Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. “We should acknowledge how difficult [this problem is]. We should listen to the experts, not be the experts,” he said.

Some of those involved say they hope tech’s anti-coronavirus efforts will help revive tech’s image.

“What we do best is mobilize, invent and move incredibly fast,” said Neil Thanedar, a startup chief executive working on the million-ventilator project. “I think we have an opportunity here to really help save lives and to change people’s perceptions.”

The ventilator project is being organized on helpwithcovid.com, a clearinghouse for scores of virus-fighting projects created by Mr. Altman. It is among dozens of similar efforts that have cropped up as it became apparent U.S. hospitals would need hundreds of thousands more ventilators than current manufacturers can make in time.

Mr. Thanedar got involved in the million-ventilator project after stewing over it one night and sending an email to Mr. Altman. The ventilators will be both mass-produced and made in a decentralized way by individuals and small businesses, Mr. Thanedar said.

While the Food and Drug Administration has begun to relax some of its rules around the use of ventilators and other medical devices relevant to coronavirus treatment, it isn’t clear yet whether Silicon Valley’s rapid medical-equipment development ultimately will get the go-ahead. An FDA spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some startups had hoped to offer at-home Covid-19 tests, including birth-control-by-mail startup Nurx Inc., at-home medical testing company Everlywell Inc. and lab company Curative Inc. The companies put those tests on hold in recent days after the FDA updated its guidance to warn against at-home testing kits.

Some in Silicon Valley are thinking about how to move on when the worst of the pandemic is over.

Brian McClendon, the executive in charge of Google Maps and Alphabet Inc.’s other geographic-related products for 10 years until 2015, has been kicking around an idea for a smartphone app to track health status. He hopes it would give people the confidence to return to normal life without fear of catching the virus.

The idea sounds Orwellian, though South Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan have used surveillance of their citizens to separate the healthy from the sick, a move that appears to have helped slow the spread of the virus.

Mr. McClendon’s health-tracking plan would use blockchain technology to protect people’s privacy. He said he wants to collaborate with others to refine his ideas before he publishes them.

Max Henderson, who until recently worked at Google, had been developing a model for coronavirus for a few months starting back in December and January. He teamed up with data scientists, engineers, epidemiologists and others earlier this month and launched a tool Friday for states to assess how quickly Covid cases could overwhelm their hospitals.

Mr. Henderson says the 18-person group behind the model feels like a movement, that they have “a moral responsibility to do something here.”

“No one can predict the future, and this model isn’t perfect,” he said. “If we wait for perfection here, we’re probably going to act too late.”

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com, Rolfe Winkler at rolfe.winkler@wsj.com and Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

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