Chris Kawaja, the owner of a chemical company with dealings in China, found another off-brand Chinese nasal swab supplier, and messaged them. “I said, ‘Hey, do you have these things?’” says Kawaja. “And this woman came right back and said, ‘Yeah, I have 250,000.’” These swabs were the real deal, but before Kawaja could nab them the Chinese woman sent another message to say, “Some guy in Houston just took 200,000 of them.” Kawaja charged the rest to his credit card — at 70 cents a pop, triple the old market price — and had them shipped to San Francisco in small batches, to evade the notice of Chinese customs officials. “It did occur to me: Why did I need to find this stuff?” says Kawaja. “Why did some random dude in Marin need to read some random newspaper article about how Joe DeRisi needed swabs, and go and find the swabs?”
DeRisi is an infectious disease specialist and co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco. I’ve been following his work and have already written about how, in the first three weeks of March, he used a volunteer labor force of 200 graduate students to build the fastest big coronavirus testing lab in the country from scratch — only to find that an absence of nasal swabs left him little to test. The swabs are no longer a problem, and the Biohub suddenly has a magic flashlight, with the power to see both where the virus hides and how it moves.
There’s now the question of where to point it.