AI Talk: “The Premonition:” A pandemic story by Michael Lewis

May 14, 2021 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD


Last weekend I was watching CBS 60 Minutes and listened with fascination to the interview of Michael Lewis. The storyline? A new book by Lewis that describes the foresight of a few people who predicted how the pandemic would unfold, long before CDC and WHO declared that we were dealing with a pandemic. The interview was so fascinating, I immediately hopped on Amazon to buy the book and the audio version—which was being released the next day!

I am sure there will be a slew of books dissecting the past year, examining what we did right and what we got wrong, and highlighting the many people and organizations who played a role in combatting the virus. In his new book, Lewis shines a spotlight on three people who played a pivotal, but background role in shaping our pandemic response: Dr. Charity Dean, assistant director of California’s Department of Public Health; Dr. Carter Mecher, a former ICU doctor at VA; and Dr. Joe DeRisi, a biochemist at University of California San Francisco. All three were interviewed in the 60 Minutes episode.

Lewis tells a fascinating story (the non-fiction type) about what these three protagonists anticipated and what they did to prepare. I came away shaking my head at several different points in the book. For one, I had no idea that President Bush was responsible for crafting our pandemic playbook. In 2003, he happened to read a book by John Barry about the 1918 pandemic. Upon investigating, he learned that the U.S. had no strategy in place to deal with a potential pandemic, so he commissioned the work to create such a strategy and plan. Dr. Mecher, profiled in Lewis’s book, created the plan as part of a team of like-minded individuals dubbed “the wolverines”—a sort of “gorilla disease fighting” force, says Lewis.

One interesting note is that Dr. Mecher managed to get this work done by planting himself inside the CDC with the help of a low-level staffer, Lisa Koonin, and got the team’s pandemic plan published as the CDC planning guide. That plan actually originated as a father-daughter science project in Albuquerque, New Mexico, way back in 2004. Bob Glass from Sandia labs was helping his daughter, Laura, and pulled the first blueprint on how to deal with a pandemic. So, the social distancing, school closings and other various safety measures we have followed since last year are based on these humble beginnings from more than a decade ago.

Dr. Mecher and the wolverines had a number of opportunities to refine their pandemic playbook, including the H1N1 flu outbreak during the Obama administration. Management of that outbreak had its flaws, just as we’ve experienced with the current pandemic, but luckily the H1N1 flu was not as virulent as COVID-19. Dr. Mecher and his wolverines were quick to spot the trouble brewing in Wuhan in January 2020. Using various “back-of-the-envelope” analysis techniques, they figured out the virus could cause a major pandemic.

Dr. Charity Dean, an infectious disease specialist trained to spot and prepare for disease outbreaks, was also quick to note the brewing pandemic. She even plotted the exponential disease progression on her whiteboard.

I found it fascinating to read that the “wolverines” reached out to Dr. Dean for help in convincing California to make hard decisions in planning a pandemic response. Wolverines included high ranking members of the Trump administration who decided to pursue out-of-band pandemic control. They determined that the administration and CDC would be slow to act and they wanted to kick start the response by prodding a large state to take the lead. How did Dr. Dean manage to accomplish this task and get California Governor Gavin Newsom to take the first proactive steps to slow the pandemic? You will have to read the book.

The third expert profiled in the book is Dr. DeRisi, who single handedly assembled a team to manufacture and distribute COVID-19 test kits that delivered results within 24-hours—for free. This was a feat that was beyond the capabilities of the major U.S. testing labs as of April last year and the CDC bungled in its efforts. Not only did Dr. DeRisi’s team create a test for the virus, they also managed to do the genome sequencing of the collected samples. They were able to pinpoint how the virus was spreading and who was infecting whom by tracking the mutations. Data analytics like this will be a critical part of any future pandemic response.

Over the years, Dr. Charity Dean experienced frequent frustration with the CDC, as she battled various infectious outbreaks in California. According to Dr. Dean, the system we currently have to prevent disease outbreaks is seriously broken. So, she launched a private company to do exactly that. She is now the CEO of a brand new startup called “The Public Health Company” with the goal of protecting businesses and communities from infectious disease outbreaks. The company has secured over $8 million in seed funding. To learn more, visit the company’s website for an interesting collection of white papers on the topic, which detail why the decentralized nature of decision making in the U.S. leads to an ineffective response to disease outbreaks. Perhaps our response next time around will be completely different. The company also advocates for the genomic analytics-based response that Dr. DeRisi used. That seems like a good bet.

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V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.

Listen to Juggy Jagannathan discuss AI on the ACDIS podcast.