He started a covid-19 vaccine company. Then he hosted a superspreader event.
In a blog post published on the afternoon of February 12, Diamandis confirmed that 12 patrons had tested positive.
Less than a week after A360 attendees flew back to their pandemic home bases across the globe, at least 20 people, including not only those who were present at A360 but also some of their family members, had confirmed cases of covid-19.
Pandemic as business opportunity
When covid-19 first made its appearance in the United States, 59-year-old Diamandis, who has an MD from Harvard Medical School and degrees from MIT, was skeptical.
In mid-March, when six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area issued the nation’s first stay-at-home order, Diamandis tweeted, “We are witnessing the viral spread of fear that is definitively damaging both national economies and global markets” and, later, “The level of panic is doing as much damage.”
But ever the entrepreneur, Diamandis saw business opportunities in the pandemic. On March 26, the XPrize Foundation, which he chairs and which runs challenges using prize money to encourage innovative solutions to big problems, launched the XPrize Pandemic Alliance, with $7.5 million in prize money to fight covid-19.
He teamed up with Mei Mei Fu and Lou Reese, spouses and co-executives of biotech company United Biomedical. The three cofounded Covaxx, a vaccine development company that functions as a United Biomedical subsidiary (and is not to be confused with the global Covax effort to provide lower-income countries with vaccine doses).
Fu and Reese had already made news for providing free antibody testing for all residents of Colorado’s San Miguel County, home of Telluride, a resort town where many coastal millionnaires, including Fu and Reese, own second homes. “There are advantages to having biotech executives as neighbors,” as The Atlantic noted at the time.
In the days that followed, Diamandis praised the Chinese government’s “unprecedented” measures to contain the pandemic, from locking down an entire city to the “rapid national coordination of public action.”
Yet, by going through with the in-person portion of the Abundance 360 Summit, Diamandis ignored government notices and legal mandates implemented in the state of California.
Even A360’s parent company, Singularity University, had canceled its largest in-person gatherings due to the pandemic. “We have been closely monitoring the global pandemic situation and taking all measures to make sure our staff and program are safe. It’s been a difficult decision, but … we have decided to postpone our November SU Executive Program,” wrote Singularity staff in an email dated October 8.
As the fall wore on and positive cases, death rates, and hospitalizations in Southern California grew precipitously, some team members charged with marketing A360 were dismayed that the event was set to continue.
On November 30, James Del, Singularity University’s head of content, conveyed his team’s growing concerns to Diamandis in an email, copying Singularity University CEO Steve Leonard, Singularity investor and board member Erik Anderson, and A360 executive director Will Weisman.
In his email, which was shared with me, Del urged SU to “consider the appearance of hosting an in-person gathering as cases in Los Angeles shatter their own records daily.”
“The current restrictions in LA county ban gatherings nearly completely,” he continued. “Going out and inviting the entire SU community to a city that is under strict lockdown seems like a PR crisis waiting to happen, and I suggest that we strongly consider changing our marketing focus to digital only.”
Just days later, on December 3, California enacted a regional stay-home order, to be triggered when ICU capacity fell below 15%. The order went into effect on December 5 and prohibited private gatherings of any size, other than constitutionally protected religious services and protests; closed nonessential businesses, except for critical infrastructure and retail; and required 100% masking outside the home. It also banned the use of hotels and lodging for nonessential travel.
A360 made adjustments as well. It changed the meeting venue first from the Beverly Hilton to the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, before finally settling on the XPrize Foundation’s office in Culver City. A360 also shifted where its guests would be staying, from a Four Seasons to Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica. It cut the number of in-person attendees, from 127 to 16, as reported by Bloomberg in late December, before increasing numbers again to between 30 and 33 patrons, who each paid a $30,000 annual membership fee, according to conference materials I obtained.
Once speakers, A360 staff, and technical and support personnel were taken into account, however, at least 84 people were present, according to Diamandis’s own count. The event went ahead despite public health orders that made it clear that neither booking a hotel for nonessential travel nor the in-person gathering itself was permitted.
“A360 is an event I’ve committed to run for 25 years. That’s sort of an important hallmark of an event,” Diamandis told me in an interview, by way of explanation as to why he was so keen for it to take place in person. “We’re in year nine, and it has always been an in-person event.” He added that one day, “eventually A360 will be fully virtualized.”
When a conference isn’t a conference
On February 12, two days after Los Angeles Department of Public Health officials arrived at the doorstep of the XPrize office and had an “interaction” (as Diamandis described it) with Will Weisman and XPrize’s “operations person,” and just before a scheduled interview with me, Diamandis published his blog post, titled “A false sense of security.” In it, he wrote that he was “humbled and pained” by the experience, and detailed the precautions his team had taken to prevent covid-19 from entering and spreading in the “immunity bubble” they had created for the event.
In that same blog post, however, he also claimed that the event was not a conference at all, but a “virtual studio-broadcast production,” with patrons who were there because they had insisted on being there as a live audience.
“It was a pretty outspoken group saying, ‘We really want to come,’” he told me. “And that started a conversation around the lines of, Could this be done? Could we have a small studio audience, and do it safely?”
Diamandis said that the decision to move forward was done in consultation with an audio-visual company that he contracted, the name of which he could not remember during our interview, and two medical providers: Fountain Life, an anti-aging health and wellness company that he cofounded, and Matt Cook, an anesthesiologist and founder of a similar integrative medical company, BioReset.
A studio broadcast production would normally require a film permit. A360 did not apply for a permit from Film.LA, which handles filming requests for Culver City, where XPrize was located, both Diamandis and Film.LA confirmed. Diamandis suggested that because XPrize’s office often hosted web broadcasts, there was no need to apply separately for a film permit.
However, multiple employees recounted to me previous discussions on how A360 leadership might apply for filming or even religious exemptions to get around the ban on gatherings.
And even if the company had submitted an application, Culver City does not currently offer indoor filming permits, while the LA County Public Health Department’s protocol for music, television, and film production requires safety plans for special events to be approved 10 days in advance.
Additionally, the protocol does not allow live audiences of the general public, except for “small, hired audiences (50 people or fewer).” Given that the 30 or so patrons were not hired, but rather were paying upwards of $30,000 for their A360 memberships and event attendance, it is unlikely that they would meet this criterion.
Thank you for testing
On January 28, the day that the first employee tested positive for covid-19, the A360 team sent out a chipper email (subject line: “Please Re-Test / and Thank you!”) to event speakers and patrons, which a recipient shared with me.
“What an amazing few days! We’re hopeful that our extensive Covid PCR testing protocol has kept you and everyone safe,” wrote “Peter & the 360 team,” before sharing that “one of our team members unfortunately has come up positive,” and asking everyone to re-test and let A360 know if anyone “should feel ill, or test positive.”
This request for follow-up does not, however, appear to have been for the purpose of reporting clusters of cases to county public health authorities, as required by several California state laws.
CA Assembly Bill 685, for example, went into effect on January 1, 2021, and requires employers to notify both employees potentially exposed and the local public health agency if more than three people living in different households test positive for covid-19 in a two-week period.
Diamandis admitted that no one from his organization reported the positive cases to the public health department, and suggested that his and his team’s struggles with covid-19 could be to blame. “I’ve been in bed for days, as have half my staff, and we’re trying to figure out, you know, which way’s up and down,” Diamandis told me. “This is the first time we’ve been able to actually take a full accounting of where we are, what went wrong, and tell the story.”
Yet while they did not have time to report the cases to the authorities, A360’s leadership did find time to contain information about the outbreak.
On January 29, Weisman started a new group text among employees called “A360 Covid,” screenshots of which were provided to me. In it, he confirmed the names of two event attendees—an event speaker and a patron—who had tested positive. Then he instructed employees to keep the news quiet.
“Really important that there is no further outreach to a broader set of people,” he wrote. “There will be no further emails to attendees or vendors.”
Diamandis chimed in by text as well: “Let’s keep all Covid related data, ideas, and communications on this single channel, please.”
In the following days, employees used the thread to share their test results and symptoms. At first, they self-reported their results through a company contract with a private testing provider. But after one employee expressed frustration that he was testing negative despite what he felt were clear symptoms (and especially since a family member had already tested positive), Diamandis suggested that employees use a “spit test” conducted at Calamigos Ranch, the venue owned by a friend that was, at one point, slated to hold the event.
On at least one occasion after A360 employees switched their testing location to the ranch, an A360 staff member shared the results on the group text message thread. “All tests were negative, except [Employee name], with a strong positive!” she wrote. The employee in question responded, “Oh wow! Ya feeling good,” suggesting that this was the first time that he was informed of his own test results. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When asked about the incident, Diamandis said that he was not aware of the text message exchange, then said that if it did occur as described, he would be worried. “Of course,” he said, there are “HIPAA approved processes,” referring to the law protecting health data.
Under HIPAA guidelines, “COVID-19 test results are considered confidential medical information under both [California] state and federal law,” which requires separate record keeping viewable “only by members of management with a true need to know,” according to a blog post by law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. Moreover, it says, “If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the employer must not reveal the employee’s identity to others in the workplace.”
Additionally, according to CDC guidelines, “Employees undergoing testing should receive clear information on the manufacturer and name of the test, type of test, purpose of the test, reliability, limitations, who will pay, how to understand the results, who will receive the results, and consequences for declining a test.” Some A360 employees interviewed said that they were not comfortable with the testing performed at the ranch, and how close its owner was to their employer.
A360’s precautions, according to Diamandis’s blog post, included requiring everyone who attended to obtain a negative test 72 hours before attending, and then be tested immediately on arrival and on every subsequent morning of the event. But mask-wearing was not enforced, and there was no request to the participants to self-quarantine for any length of time before the gathering.
It has been known since early in the pandemic that the virus can incubate for several days before becoming detectable. Self-isolation would have been especially important for anyone arriving from further afield—like the participants traveling from overseas. The CDC recommends that travelers take a covid-19 test three to five days after traveling and then quarantine for a further seven days even if the test is negative.
Diamandis apparently believed that testing could be an infallible way to circumvent these evidence-based precautions. Under a section in the blog post titled “Lessons Learned,” he wrote of being “flabbergasted” to discover, a year into the pandemic, how unreliable some tests could be, when he used them on himself after developing symptoms and they still came back negative.
Who’s tracking positive cases?
In the post, Diamandis admitted that 24 people, including himself, had contracted covid-19. The actual numbers he cited, however, added up to only 21 people: 12 members/patrons attending the event, four faculty, and five A360 staff.
When asked to account for this discrepancy, he admitted that there could be two support staff who had tested positive. “Someone is tracking,” he said, though he said he was not sure who.
I asked whether another number, 32 positive cases, that I had calculated based on reporting, was plausible. Diamandis responded that “to include the family members who have had cases,” a total of 32 “seems probably low.”
His blog post also did not acknowledge that public health orders had banned gatherings between December 3 and January 25 in California. Diamandis would not respond when I asked whether he was aware that he was violating state health rules by holding his event. “I knew that there were challenges. But I don’t know that I want to answer that on the record,” he said.
“I am trying my very best to turn the situation to one where I can speak loudly and clearly, and share what I learned in a positive fashion, not get burned in the fire but use it to drive a spotlight on,” he told me. “Listen, I screwed up here.”
I asked how this “screw-up” reflected on his board leadership of a covid-19 vaccine company and an organization giving away $7.5 million in prize money to solve the challenges of covid-19, including encouraging mask-wearing.
“I’ll have to take a minute to think about that,” he said. “Let me send you an email.”
Newly revealed coronavirus data has reignited a debate over the virus’s origins
Data collected in 2020—and kept from public view since then—potentially adds weight to the animal theory. It highlights a potential suspect: the raccoon dog. But exactly how much weight it adds depends on who you ask. New analyses of the data have only reignited the debate, and stirred up some serious drama.
The current ruckus starts with a study shared by Chinese scientists back in February 2022. In a preprint (a scientific paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal), George Gao of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) and his colleagues described how they collected and analyzed 1,380 samples from the Huanan Seafood Market.
These samples were collected between January and March 2020, just after the market was closed. At the time, the team wrote that they only found coronavirus in samples alongside genetic material from people.
There were a lot of animals on sale at this market, which sold more than just seafood. The Gao paper features a long list, including chickens, ducks, geese, pheasants, doves, deer, badgers, rabbits, bamboo rats, porcupines, hedgehogs, crocodiles, snakes, and salamanders. And that list is not exhaustive—there are reports of other animals being traded there, including raccoon dogs. We’ll come back to them later.
But Gao and his colleagues reported that they didn’t find the coronavirus in any of the 18 species of animal they looked at. They suggested that it was humans who most likely brought the virus to the market, which ended up being the first known epicenter of the outbreak.
Fast-forward to March 2023. On March 4, Florence Débarre, an evolutionary biologist at Sorbonne University in Paris, spotted some data that had been uploaded to GISAID, a website that allows researchers to share genetic data to help them study and track viruses that cause infectious diseases. The data appeared to have been uploaded in June 2022. It seemed to have been collected by Gao and his colleagues for their February 2022 study, although it had not been included in the actual paper.
Fostering innovation through a culture of curiosity
And so I think a big part of it as a company, by setting these ambitious goals, it forces us to say if we want to be number one, if we want to be top tier in these areas, if we want to continue to generate results, how do we get there using technology? And so that really forces us to throw away our assumptions because you can’t follow somebody, if you want to be number one you can’t follow someone to become number one. And so we understand that the path to get there, it’s through, of course, technology and the software and the enablement and the investment, but it really is by becoming goal-oriented. And if we look at these examples of how do we create the infrastructure on the technology side to support these ambitious goals, we ourselves have to be ambitious in turn because if we bring a solution that’s also a me too, that’s a copycat, that doesn’t have differentiation, that’s not going to propel us, for example, to be a top 10 supply chain. It just doesn’t pass muster.
So I think at the top level, it starts with the business ambition. And then from there we can organize ourselves at the intersection of the business ambition and the technology trends to have those very rich discussions and being the glue of how do we put together so many moving pieces because we’re constantly scanning the technology landscape for new advancing and emerging technologies that can come in and be a part of achieving that mission. And so that’s how we set it up on the process side. As an example, I think one of the things, and it’s also innovation, but it doesn’t get talked about as much, but for the community out there, I think it’s going to be very relevant is, how do we stay on top of the data sovereignty questions and data localization? There’s a lot of work that needs to go into rethinking what your cloud, private, public, edge, on-premise look like going forward so that we can remain cutting edge and competitive in each of our markets while meeting the increasing guidance that we’re getting from countries and regulatory agencies about data localization and data sovereignty.
And so in our case, as a global company that’s listed in Hong Kong and we operate all around the world, we’ve had to really think deeply about the architecture of our solutions and apply innovation in how we can architect for a longer term growth, but in a world that’s increasingly uncertain. So I think there’s a lot of drivers in some sense, which is our corporate aspirations, our operating environment, which has continued to have a lot of uncertainty, and that really forces us to take a very sharp lens on what cutting edge looks like. And it’s not always the bright and shiny technology. Cutting edge could mean going to the executive committee and saying, Hey, we’re going to face a challenge about compliance. Here’s the innovation we’re bringing about architecture so that we can handle not just the next country or regulatory regime that we have to comply with, but the next 10, the next 50.
Laurel: Well, and to follow up with a bit more of a specific example, how does R&D help improve manufacturing in the software supply chain as well as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and the industrial metaverse?
Art: Oh, I love this one because this is the perfect example of there’s a lot happening in the technology industry and there’s so much back to the earlier point of applied curiosity and how we can try this. So specifically around artificial intelligence and industrial metaverse, I think those go really well together with what are Lenovo’s natural strengths. Our heritage is as a leading global manufacturer, and now we’re looking to also transition to services-led, but applying AI and technologies like the metaverse to our factories. I think it’s almost easier to talk about the inverse, Laurel, which is if we… Because, and I remember very clearly we’ve mapped this out, there’s no area within the supply chain and manufacturing that is not touched by these areas. If I think about an example, actually, it’s very timely that we’re having this discussion. Lenovo was recognized just a few weeks ago at the World Economic Forum as part of the global lighthouse network on leading manufacturing.
And that’s based very much on applying around AI and metaverse technologies and embedding them into every aspect of what we do about our own supply chain and manufacturing network. And so if I pick a couple of examples on the quality side within the factory, we’ve implemented a combination of digital twin technology around how we can design to cost, design to quality in ways that are much faster than before, where we can prototype in the digital world where it’s faster and lower cost and correcting errors is more upfront and timely. So we are able to much more quickly iterate on our products. We’re able to have better quality. We’ve taken advanced computer vision so that we’re able to identify quality defects earlier on. We’re able to implement technologies around the industrial metaverse so that we can train our factory workers more effectively and better using aspects of AR and VR.
And we’re also able to, one of the really important parts of running an effective manufacturing operation is actually production planning, because there’s so many thousands of parts that are coming in, and I think everyone who’s listening knows how much uncertainty and volatility there have been in supply chains. So how do you take such a multi-thousand dimensional planning problem and optimize that? Those are things where we apply smart production planning models to keep our factories fully running so that we can meet our customer delivery dates. So I don’t want to drone on, but I think literally the answer was: there is no place, if you think about logistics, planning, production, scheduling, shipping, where we didn’t find AI and metaverse use cases that were able to significantly enhance the way we run our operations. And again, we’re doing this internally and that’s why we’re very proud that the World Economic Forum recognized us as a global lighthouse network manufacturing member.
Laurel: It’s certainly important, especially when we’re bringing together computing and IT environments in this increasing complexity. So as businesses continue to transform and accelerate their transformations, how do you build resiliency throughout Lenovo? Because that is certainly another foundational characteristic that is so necessary.
The Download: covid’s origin drama, and TikTok’s uncertain future
This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.
Newly-revealed coronavirus data has reignited a debate over the virus’s origins
This week, we’ve seen the resurgence of a debate that has been swirling since the start of the pandemic—where did the virus that causes covid-19 come from?
For the most part, scientists have maintained that the virus probably jumped from an animal to a human at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan at some point in late 2019. But some claim that the virus leaped from humans to animals, rather than the other way around. And many continue to claim that the virus somehow leaked from a nearby laboratory that was studying coronaviruses in bats.
Data collected in 2020—and kept from public view since then—potentially adds weight to the animal theory. It highlights a potential suspect: the raccoon dog. But exactly how much weight it adds depends on who you ask. Read the full story.
This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
Read more of MIT Technology Review’s covid reporting:
+ Our senior biotech editor Antonio Regalado investigated the origins of the coronavirus behind covid-19 in his five-part podcast series Curious Coincidence.
+ Meet the scientist at the center of the covid lab leak controversy. Shi Zhengli has spent years at the Wuhan Institute of Virology researching coronaviruses that live in bats. Her work has come under fire as the world tries to understand where covid-19 came from. Read the full story.
+ This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why. Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, believes that a spillover of the virus from animals at the Huanan Seafood market was almost certainly behind the origin of the pandemic. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 TikTok’s future in the US is hanging in the balance
Banning it is a colossal challenge, and officials still lack the legal authority to do so. (WP $)
+ TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was grilled by a congressional committee. (FT $)
+ He told lawmakers the company would earn their trust. (WSJ $)
+ Meanwhile, TikTok paid for influencers to travel to DC to lobby its cause. (Wired $)
2 A crypto fugitive has been arrested in Montenegro
Do Kwon has been on the run since TerraUSD stablecoin collapsed last year. (WSJ $)
+ Want to mine Bitcoin? Get yourself to Texas. (Reuters)
+ What’s next for crypto. (MIT Technology Review)
3 Twitter’s getting rid of its legacy blue checks
On the entirely serious date of April 1. (The Verge)+ The platform’s still an unattractive prospect for advertisers. (Vox)
4 Chatbots are having tough conversations for us
ChatGPT is adept at writing scripts for sensitive talks with kids and colleagues. (NYT $)
+ OpenAI has given ChatGPT access to the web’s live data. (The Verge)
+ How Character.AI became a billion-dollar unicorn. (WSJ $)
+ The inside story of how ChatGPT was built from the people who made it. (MIT Technology Review)
5 Jack Dorsey’s Block has been accused of fraudulent transactions
The payments company denied it, and claims it inflated its users numbers, too.(FT $)
+ Dorsey doesn’t have a track record of caring about this kind of thing. (The Information $)
6 Homeowners associations are secretly installing surveillance systems
The system tracks license plates and follows residents’ movements. (The Intercept)
7 Inside the tricky ethics of using DNA to solve crimes
A new database could help to protect users’ privacy. (Wired $)|
+ The citizen scientist who finds killers from her couch. (MIT Technology Review)
8 There’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the climate
Healthier, more sustainable diets are a good place to start. (Scientific American)
+ Taking stock of our climate past, present, and future. (MIT Technology Review)
9 TikTok keeps hectoring us
It seems we just can’t get enough of being aggressively told what to do. (Vox)
10 Don’t get scammed by a deepfake
CallerID can’t be trusted to protect you from rogue AI calls. (Gizmodo)
Quote of the day
“Wait, I need content.”
—TikTok fashion creator Kristine Thompson refuses to miss a content opportunity during a trip to the US Capitol to lobby against a potential TikTok ban, she tells the New York Times.
The big story
This sci-fi blockchain game could help create a metaverse that no one owns
Dark Forest is a vast universe, and most of it is shrouded in darkness. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to venture into the unknown, avoid being destroyed by opposing players who may be lurking in the dark, and build an empire of the planets you discover and can make your own.
But while the video game seemingly looks and plays much like other online strategy games, it doesn’t rely on the servers running other popular online strategy games. And it may point to something even more profound: the possibility of a metaverse that isn’t owned by a big tech company. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)
+ If underwater terrors are your thing, Joe Romiero takes some seriously impressive shark pictures and videos.
+ Try as it might, Ted Lasso’s British dialog falls wide of the mark.
+ Let’s have a good old snoop around some celebrities’ bedrooms.
+ Why we can’t get enough of those fancy candles.
+ Interviewing animals with a tiny microphone, it doesn’t get much better than that.