A decade ago Joe DeRisi received a letter from a woman with a picture of herself wrapped in a boa constrictor. “I heard you’re a virus hunter,” the letter began before going on to explain that the snake, which she referred to as “Mr. Larry,” was her service animal. She was terrified that an illness then killing snakes all over the world might carry away Mr. Larry too. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” recalls DeRisi, a biochemist at the University of California at San Francisco. It actually wasn’t much crazier than a lot of the other problems that landed on his desk. Human beings with illnesses that mystified the global medical establishment often found their way to DeRisi. Snakes, not so much. “I let the letter sit on my desk for maybe a year,” he said. “It was a weird letter.”

One day his curiosity got the best of him. He called a vet he knew and asked, “Is it true that snakes are dying of some mysterious disease?” “Oh yeah,” said the vet, as if everyone knew this, and told DeRisi that zoos everywhere were seeing their snake populations being wiped out. “I then went on YouTube, and typed in ‘Hey, my snake is sick,’” says DeRisi. “And all these videos start popping up, from all over the world.”

DeRisi soon realized that he had stumbled onto a snake pandemic whose origin remained entirely uninvestigated. He ordered up some dead snakes so that he might play around with their genome in the same way that, back in 2003, he’d analyzed human genomes after people were killed by a mysterious new coronavirus that had surfaced in Hong Kong. (SARS, the new virus was being called.)

To work the same magic on snakes that he did on humans — that is, to separate the genetic material that was “python” from everything else, he needed to know the python’s genome. “Who founded the Python Genome Project?” says DeRisi. “No one!” And so DeRisi took some of his graduate students to the San Francisco aquarium, extracted the blood of one of its snakes, and began what amounted to the Snake Genome project. Once he was done, he was able to take the genetic material of an infected snake, eliminate everything that was “snake,” and thus isolate what wasn’t snake: the virus. “It was actually an ancient ancestor of Ebola,” says DeRisi. “Dinosaurs had this same virus.”


Just before the SARS epidemic, DeRisi had created a new computer chip, which he called the Virochip. It allowed him, in effect, to take the DNA from a sick person and sort the human genetic material from whatever wasn’t human — say a virus. “The game is to separate you from everything else,” he said. In 2003, few knew about DeRisi’s new tool, and it never occurred to the public health authorities to consult him. “We literally had to beg the CDC to send us a sample of the virus,” DeRisi recalls.

Eventually he got his hands on a sample, and presented it to the Virochip. It read SARS as one part cow coronavirus, one part bird coronavirus and one part human coronavirus — in other words, it did not match any known virus. “It was like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from three different puzzles,” DeRisi says. “They didn’t fit together.” He sequenced the virus’s genome — and that’s what allowed others to figure out that it, like the new coronavirus, had come from a bat. “No one had ever seen bat coronaviruses,” DeRisi says. “They didn’t exist. We should have paid more attention the first time.”

I tell you all this to explain why, on the night of April 11, I found myself driving across the Bay Bridge to see Joe DeRisi. He’s now the director of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a nonprofit organization created a few years ago with a $600 million gift from the Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg and his physician wife, Priscilla Chan. As a graduate student Chan had heard DeRisi give a single lecture, about the computer chip that could detect and identify all viruses, known and unknown, and it had blown her mind. The Biohub’s stated mission was to eliminate all disease by the end of the 21st century, which sounds audacious but then: Why not? Chan asked herself who in the world might be able to do such a thing and decided that DeRisi was the best hope.

That was an example of a general phenomenon: When a problem feels unsolvable it tends to find its way to DeRisi. Another example occurred at the end of February, when DeRisi’s office phone began to ring. He looked down, didn’t recognize the number and almost didn’t answer. “I thought it was a telemarketer, but I picked it up and it was Gavin Newsom,” says DeRisi of the governor of California. “He asked: ‘What are the three things California could screw up in the coming weeks?’ I said number one was testing. Because if there is no testing there isn’t even the possibility of a solution.” DeRisi thought testing was so important that he would soon forget the other two other important things that California might screw up.

He then watched the entire country screw up testing. By the second week of March it was clear that the absence of federal leadership, combined with the fragmented nature of the American health-care system, meant that tests for the coronavirus either were not available or were not processed by labs in anything like a useful period of time. He read stories of patients waiting 10 days for test results. “We heard that sending tests even to the CDC was taking days, not hours,” says DeRisi.

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