Wanted: A Coronavirus Manhattan Project

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Regarding coronavirus, so far public policy in most Western countries focused on monetary and fiscal interventions. They are aimed at mitigating the disastrous economic impact of the government-mandated freezing of most activities and people to people interactions in order to stop contagion. But it should be clear to all that even vast amounts of money thrown at the US and other major economies will not be enough to stabilize a catastrophic situation caused by the “closing down”, for an indefinite period, of most advanced countries.

The limits of economic stimulus

A giant stimulus package, no matter how big, is at best only temporary relief. By now, we begin to understand that trying to save lives by shutting everything down is causing and will cause catastrophic economic devastation.

With virtually “everything” closed, millions of American workers are suddenly out of a job. Furthermore, in the US thousands of shaky companies, kept alive (before this pandemonium began) by low interest loans, will go bankrupt. Without any income, they are unable to meet their payments obligations to banks and bondholders. And when they go under, sadly they will bring down with them managers, workers and their families, shareholders, creditors, suppliers and more. The oil sector, battered by the global slowdown, is now on life support due to crude at $ 25 per barrel or less, the result of the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. And this is just a partial list.

Focus on a cure

So, since we need to keep the drastic people movement restrictions in order to prevent contagion and government-delivered economic relief is not enough, what else can be done?

Well, invest more –much more– where the solution to this crisis will be eventually found: in the laboratories and research facilities where scientists are already busy trying to find a cure and a vaccine for the illness caused by this coronavirus. I am sure that much is being done. But, we simply need to do more. May be much more.

Issuing checks to battered US unemployed workers and credit guarantees to companies in trouble provides important but only temporary relief. Investing the same money, or larger sums, in state of the art research aimed at finding a vaccine and/or cure for this coronavirus is a much smarter policy.

We need a Manhattan Project for coronavirus

We need an “All Hands on Deck” approach to this pandemic. We need a medical equivalent of the Manhattan Project, the secret American effort to develop an atomic bomb during WWII. The Manhattan Project probably looked like a fool’s errand at the time. The task was: invent something new and revolutionary, all on the basis of theories lacking any empirical verification. Some who knew about the secret program viewed it as a fantasy, a waste of time and money.

And yet, it worked!

While the Manhattan Project was about destruction, not saving lives, the use of the bomb secretly developed by the Manhattan Projects scientists against Japan resulted in an immediate ending of the war in the Pacific. This way, millions of lives were saved. The alternative would have been a US landing in Japan and then an enormous military undertaking leading to the conquest of the entire country, inch by inch, through a bloody fight against an enemy that would simply not let go.

A medical call to arms

Simply stated, today we need a “Manhattan Project equivalent”, a historic medical call to arms. As we engage in this massive undertaking, we should be comforted by the fact that, unlike the Manhattan Project scientists who were trying to invent something entirely new, we already have extremely valuable resources in the US and other Western countries.

Indeed, nowadays, we have great scientific talent in America, Europe, and Asia. There are thousands of skilled researchers, state of the art laboratories, sophisticated research tools and futuristic technologies unimaginable only a few years ago.

A clear statement from the top

What we urgently need now is a clear message from the President of the United States and all key policy-makers around the world: finding a cure is the number one priority. Key world leaders need to reassure all the capable scientists who are already working on coronavirus research that they will get all the support they will need.

“This is a global emergency. No red tape or delays. You will get –now– whatever you may need in terms of extra funding, additional staff, new equipment, shared platforms and what not, in order to facilitate and expedite your extremely valuable work”.

A well funded and properly coordinated effort, with easy exchange of findings, data and all relevant information among scientists in different countries, would constitute a modern equivalent of the Manhattan Project. Much of the critical research and experimentation work on the coronavirus is well underway. But policy-makers should elevate this critically important effort to the very top of the national and indeed global agenda, while providing all the assistance that may be required.

We shall prevail

I just cannot believe that with all the existing human and technological resources –if properly funded and coordinated– we shall not be able to find a cure that will beat this virus. Of course, we do not know the timeline. It may take a few months, or may be longer. But this is the way to go. We are way too smart to be confined to a public health policy option that prescribes killing all the Western economies in order to save lives.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.