Dr. Eric Topol may be the most interesting doctor I’ve ever met. He’s deep, and deeply informed about the intersection between disease and genomics. And he is optimistic about COVID-19.
“I’m very upbeat,” Topol told me this week. “I think we’ll be in good shape by the summer, by about July, barring some unforeseen stuff. We’re really in the home stretch. We’ve got to get over this variant bump, but we will. The vaccines are solid…I was down in the dumpster last year because we so terribly mismanaged the pandemic. But we are managing it well now. We’re getting close to four million vaccinations a day…That’s the main reason we’re going to win and prevail.”
Topol is director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, which aims to combine discoveries from genomics and digital healthcare to improve “individualized medicine.” He’s also author of books on digital healthcare and AI in healthcare (not to mention textbooks on cardiology). Topol has spoken at in-person Techonomy conferences, and is our first major interview at next week’s Health+Wealth of America conference.
We’re lucky to get some of his time. You gotta hear this guy talk about the pandemic and what comes next (Tuesday at 2:15pm Eastern time). In our prep call for the session he said he “changed his religion” in February 2020 to become what he calls a “Covidgilante.” He became obsessed with research and data about the pandemic and began talking to as many experts as he could–immunologists, virologists, structural biologists, and others. “Following all the data became basically an obsession, and until we get out of this I’m going to stay obsessed.” (Other speakers on health and the pandemic include Nina Burleigh, author of the upcoming book Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic, as well as Johnson & Johnson’s CIO, Humana’s chief digital and analytics officer, Cleveland Clinic’s chief of medical operations, the head of product for clinical trial software company Medidata, executives from eyecare giant VSP, and healthcare entrepreneur Jonathan Bush.)
Topol is so much in demand he’s been quoted twice just this week in the New York Times (Wednesday about “medical Alexas” and Thursday about Covid variants). Not only that but also on Wednesday he authored an op-ed there. And he wrote one in the Wall Street Journal a month ago.
In the prep call he told me an interesting tale about that NYTimes op-ed, titled “Coronavirus Variants Don’t Have to Be Scary. Still, Mask Up.”. Its main point was that the vaccines, especially the mRNA ones from Pfizer and Moderna, are being shown effective in fighting the virus variants. He argued against the Biden administration’s approach of refusing to send more vaccine to regions especially hard hit, like Michigan. And he finished by noting that “vaccines induce a far broader and [more] powerful immune response than humans do in response to coronavirus infections,” which was news to me.
However, “the reason I wrote the op-ed,” he told me, “is to get the word ‘scariant’ into print, and not just on Twitter, where I’ve been using it for months.” For him it refers to what he considers excessively alarmist press accounts about variants, including news reports that speak of “devil variants.” And yet the word “scariant,” which nicely encapsulates his point of view, does not appear in the op-ed. “They took it out,” Topol told me. “This is funny—they said it’s derogatory to the media, because I had hyperlinks to all these cockamamie stories…But I said ‘That’s the whole point!’…I want people to have confidence the devil is not here.”
Interestingly, if you click through to the next day’s Times story by Tara Parker-Pope, you’ll see Topol is quoted up top using that very word “scariant,” and the lede is all about the crazy and excessive language being used to describe the variants—just what he wanted to emphasize in his op-ed. Times news editors apparently have different priorities than the op-ed ones, though there were still no links out to specific offending stories in other media.
Now one of Topol’s big priorities is pushing for the development of a so-called “pan-coronavirus” vaccine. “This virus is crushable,” he explains. “Its spike protein is like hitting the side of a barn. So we can take down the entire coronavirus family.” Covid is just one of a group of viruses including the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
He is excited about the commitment of a major international consortium called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). It was formed in 2017 by the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome, and the World Economic Forum. Now it has committed $200 million towards development of a pan-coronavirus vaccine.
“I actually think we’ll get there within a year,” says Topol. “But we couldn’t do it without CEPI making this a priority.” He also notes that this is not just a long-term precaution: “We could still get variants that could get much worse.” But a pan-coronavirus vaccine would be able to staunch any variant.
Topol is just one of more than 20 powerful speakers at The Health+Wealth of America virtual conference next week. Other great speakers include Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, WW (Weight Watchers) CEO Mindy Grossman, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Zambian-American economist Dambisa Moyo, Hewlett-Packard Chief Commercial Officer Christoph Schell, New Republic editor Michael Tomasky, and executives from Cognizant, 1-800-FLOWERS, eco-fashion company Pangaia, and eyecare giant VSP Global. There’s more.