When the federal government sent 170 broken ventilators from its national stockpile to Los Angeles County, Silicon Valley responded.
The life-saving machines—which have been pivotal in the fight against Covid-19—arrived at San Jose-based Bloom Energy at 8am on a Saturday morning in late March. By Monday morning, the defective devices had been repaired and were back in LA.
“Across our state, companies big and small are stepping up to meet this moment, and assist our efforts to respond to this crisis,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “California has always been a leader in innovation, and to see this innovation and these incredible resources being used to ensure the people on the front lines of Covid-19 have the resources they need to save lives embodies California’s giving spirit.”
When Bloom Energy CEO KR Sridhar got the call from Newsom asking for help refurbishing a shipment of broken ventilators, workers at the fuel-cell manufacturing plant knew nothing about respirator repair. But five hours after the broken ventilators were delivered to the Sunnyvale factory, Bloom Energy completed its first repair.
“We feel strongly that businesses and individuals should all contribute to the national effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 and treat those impacted by the virus,” Bloom Energy spokesperson Justin Saia told San Jose Inside, then ended his comment with Silicon Valley-speak. “As a mission-driven organization committed to tackling complex problems, this task very much fit within our DNA.”
Bloom Energy has refurbished 1,200 ventilators to date from California, Delaware and Pennsylvania and has the capacity to repair up to 2,000 ventilators a week.
Approximately 50 U.S. companies have received Emergency Use Authorization to run a Covid-19 test under the Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines, and a large cluster of them are based in the South Bay area. Since testing is the key to controlling the virus’ spread and reopening the economy, the valley’s legendary can-do attitude and execution speed are contributing to the solution. The financial incentives to extract benefits from a fluid environment naturally come into play.
Silicon Valley is at the forefront of trying to crack the coronavirus pandemic, as companies like Avellino Labs and KorvaLabs in Menlo Park, Cepheid in Santa Clara, Atila BioSystems in Mountain View, Roche Molecular Systems in Pleasanton, Abbott Laboratories in Santa Clara and the Stanford Clinical Virology Laboratory have developed their own tests for Covid-19. All of the companies have expanded capacity to serve patients in the Bay Area and beyond.
“We continue to ramp up support for community sites and private partners,” said Eric Bernabei, Avellino Labs’ marketing officer. “We’re constantly in talks with state and county officials trying to understand what the needs are and how to support them.”
Elizabeth Baxter, who heads external relations center of excellence at Roche Molecular Systems, said the Roche test was the first commercial test to be authorized under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization.
Silicon Valley innovation remains at the forefront in every phase of the pandemic, whether it’s developing tests, using Artificial Intelligence to accelerate the genome characteristics of Covid-19, or making Personal Protective Equipment.
Businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators seem to be driven as much by the need to contribute as by future profit.
Maker Nexus, a 3D printing company in Sunnyvale with four paid employees, started enlisting the help of the maker community last month and coalesced on a project to build thousands of face shields that are going to health care workers across the nation.
Sierra Circuits of Sunnyvale provides printed circuit boards and other prototypes to their customers—one of them being Cepheid—which has made a Covid-19 test that can deliver a result in 45 minutes. Cepheid’s GeneXpert rapid molecular diagnostics machine tests for the coronavirus, and automated modules use disposable cartridges that use microfluidics, the same type of technology that Cepheid used to help the U.S. Postal Service during the 2001 Anthrax attacks.
Abbott Laboratories, which is headquartered in Illinois and has a number of locations across the Bay Area, has developed one of the fastest Covid-19 tests on the market. The machine, which is the size of a toaster and weighs six and a half pounds, delivers positive results within five minutes and negative results within 13 minutes.
“It’s mobile and can be brought to places of greatest need—this could be used in a remote portable environment—including non-traditional healthcare sites like drive-thru testing facilities or airports,” said Norman Moore, director of scientific affairs for infectious diseases at Abbott Laboratories. “This kind of portable diagnostic technology is an important new tool in the broader comprehensive testing effort.”
Abbott Laboratories also recently unveiled a blood test to detect antibodies and identify whether a person previously had Covid-19. The company plans on shipping 4,000 tests across the country in April.
Once word got out that Avellino Labs—a genetic research firm—had developed its own Covid-19 test, demand skyrocketed. They started receiving calls from all over the world requesting tests for their respective communities.
The city of Hayward was able to debut its first drive-up and walk-up testing site on March 23, only because Hayward Fire Chief Garrett Contreras got connected with Avellino Labs.
Avellino’s new coronavirus test can be processed in four to seven hours, meaning patients can be notified of their result within a day. Avellino Labs began developing the Covid-19 test in January to protect its own employees in China and South Korea.
Up until the start of the development of the Covid-19 test, Avellino Labs was known for doing one thing and doing it well—making tests to diagnose eye diseases. So how does a company known for making tests to diagnose eye diseases transition to build a Covid-19 test in one month?
In reality, developing the test was right in Avellino’s wheelhouse, as similar technology is used for both the Covid-19 tests and the assays to diagnose eye diseases. Avellino shifted its entire operations to Covid-19, working throughout the night to see it to completion in early March. “It was exhilarating,” Dr. Connie Chao-Shern, chief lab officer of Avellino Labs, said to nbc.com. “We cheered...we, at that time, actually, we hugged!”
There was also cause for celebration when Roche developed its test.
“Many people had already begun working from home,” Baxter said, "so some celebrations were done virtually, including a global virtual town hall.”
In the race to find a treatment for patients with Covid-19 infections, Gilead Sciences of Foster City seems to be going all in on its experimental drug, remdesivir.
It took only eight days—from Feb. 3 to 11—for the biopharmaceutical company to fill its first vials of remdesivir once the company decided it was going forward with the process to provide the experimental antiviral to support clinical trials.
“From that moment on, it was all hands on deck,” Charlie Langdon, senior director of manufacturing of the company’s La Verne facility, said on the firm’s website. “This wasn't just one department—this was literally our entire site coming together and strategizing about what we needed to be done to make this happen as quickly as possible.”
A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracked 53 people who were provided with a 10-day course of remdesivir. The patients were hospitalized with Covid-19, needed respiratory support and received the treatment on a compassionate use basis, a program that allows people to use unapproved medicines when no other treatment options are available.
Over a median follow-up of 18 days, 36 of the 53 patients showed oxygen improvement, while 15 percent of the patients worsened. Of the 30 patients who were receiving invasive mechanical ventilation, 17 were able to get off their breathing device.
All told, 47 percent of the patients were discharged, while 13 percent died. Due to a lack of a control group in this study, some in the biomedical industry have expressed skepticism with the results.
“The data from this paper are almost uninterpretable,” Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said to Bloomberg.com. “There is some evidence suggesting efficacy, but we simply do not know what would have happened to these patients had they not been given the drug.”
Remdesivir has become a promising therapeutic treatment for Covid-19 due to its broad antiviral spectrum activity against members of several virus families, including filoviruses like Ebola and various coronaviruses.
However, researchers and scientists won’t get a clearer picture on whether remdesivir can be the eventual treatment for Covid-19 patients until the results of larger clinical trials are released in the coming weeks and months.
Gilead Sciences, Cepheid and Benjamin Pinsky of the Stanford Clinical Virology Lab either turned down a phone interview request or did not respond at all.