[ Question ]

Are there good EA projects for helping with COVID-19?

by Linch 1 min read3rd Mar 202028 comments


I think I (and some other EAs) are in a possibly rare category of being young, healthy, and having unusually high financial, etc stability so we can take time off our work/studies and other projects to fully focus on this.

In addition, some of us may have especially relevant skills. (For example, many of us have extensive amateur or professional experience on analyzing tail risks).

While I agree that there should be a strong prior against EAs working on disaster relief, I think this is plausibly different from other disaster relief situations because it's likely to be unusually bad and humanity is unusually ill-prepared relative to previous disasters.

I'm tentatively more optimistic about new projects than about donating money or joining existing orgs, since this seems like an important space to move fast on.

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I've seen concern that hospitals will run out of ventilators. Potential intervention: design a cheap machine to pump bag valve masks (which are ubiquitous and apparently do much of the same job as a ventilator, but currently require a human operator). I'd guess you could build something to perform this job for <$50; possibly very quickly if you had a team of competent engineers.

I don't know how you'd get them distributed though, and I'm skeptical that the FDA would make it easy to sell them to US hospitals. I'm interested in anyone with experience in the medical device space, or experience in the constraints on what devices hospitals are allowed to use, weighing in on that question.

Based on a paper that was just accepted for publication, I outlined 4 areas where I think there is still critical work that can be done to prepare for wider-scale disruption, should it occur. They are:

1) Enable people to stay isolated effectively.
2) Triage and manage medical care remotely.
3) Manage critical services through disruptions.
4) Ensure transport systems remain functional.

For details about what each means, see the linked post.

I have been leading on the Coronavirus Tech Handbook.

It's a collection of tools, websites and data relating to Coronavirus. If you see useful website, tools or datasets, please add them.


I imagine there are tech interventions people could make which would save lives, so connecting the community seems effective given how cheap it is.

Reposting what I wrote on Facebook:

Young low-risk adults doing groceries and other errands for high-risk old adults.

I wonder if it is effective and if there is a way to scale it? I talked to one EA from Italy and they said a student union is also doing this there. I am looking into how to accomplish this in Canada.

We could potentially fund an app or something so that anyone who wants to volunteer can quickly take part and accept a request.

The request could be taken via telephone for example and then placed in the app.

Or we create a simple process without any apps. Google sheet?

Dealing with superspreaders: it’s crucial to give guidelines and make sure young people are much less likely to catch the virus than old people. I think this is doable.

Medicine isn't my area, but I'd guess the timelines for vaccine trial completion might be significantly accelerated if some trial participants agreed to be deliberately exposed to SARS-CoV-2, rather than getting data by waiting for participants to get exposed on their own. This practice is known as a "human challenge trial" (HCT), and is occasionally used to get rapid proof-of-concept on vaccines. Using live, wild-type SARS-CoV-2 on fully informed volunteers could possibly provide valuable enough data to reduce the expected development time of the vaccine by several weeks, with a large expected number of lives saved as a result.

Similar usage of HCT's seems to generally be permitted by the relevant ethics committees for low-risk diseases, such as dengue fever, but not high-risk ones, like Ebola or HIV. A brief look at a WHO document on these, and a longer look at relevant US federal law, didn't turn up any hard rules on how dangerous a disease can be before exposure to a "wild-type" virus is forbidden, and both at least mention considering societal benefits as a factor. However, sometimes HCT's for relatively minor diseases like Zika are refused.

The WHO document mentions that these sorts of tests are considered better for selecting between vaccine candidates or supporting evidence than as robust proof of effectiveness for general usage (see Section 5 of the linked document). The document seems to expect that most usages for preventing dangerous diseases will involve modified diseases. Using wild-type coronavirus would be both faster and stronger evidence of efficacy.

There are probably many other people on this forum who could address the expected value of such a trial better than I could, but my suggestion is that EA's engage with the relevant regulators to push for allowing such trials to take place if they would help. Basically, having volunteers put themselves at risk for a faster vaccine would be net positive; independent ethics committees might reject such a study anyways; generating regulatory or public support could make this less likely.

If this were to happen, it seems like a key narrative point would be that the government is allowing people to voluntarily take on risks to find a cure. I think that there would be plenty of volunteers if you asked right, and if some EA's were to do this, it would help their optics tremendously if several of them vocally volunteered.

Could be socially beneficial to start a project developing good online conferencing tech, the landscape is pretty limited ATM.

[Please disregard this comment for now - we are going to take more time to finalise the pledge before we seek support]

Helping to support and disseminate distribute a viral social contract (i.e., a pledge) to coordinate collective action against the Coronavirus might be one option to consider.

Please see this document for the project background and the current working draft for the pledge.

Please fill this form if you want to help us to distribute the pledge during and after launch (the 11th to 13th of March).

I really think that this is a case where leveraging EA networks can have a very positive social impact.

Taking and sharing the pledge will protect you, your family and your community but also the wider world and future generations. It will also help us to collect useful data about the best way to promote pledges and safety related behaviour.

This project seems relevant - an app to track COVID-19. Especially given the lack of testing in e.g. the US (and anecdotal evidence from my own social circle suggests it's already more prevalent than official statistics suggest) simple data-gathering seems relevant.