The Open Philanthropy Project (OPP), which is largely funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, has been one of the few grantmaking organizations in recent years with an active program in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. That giving emerged out of OPP’s longstanding concern with what it terms "global catastrophic risks" that have the capacity to destabilize society sufficient to cause long-term harm to humanity or even “lead to human extinction." While such doomsday fears once made OPP something of an odd outlier in philanthropy, they now can’t seem far-fetched to anyone after the last few months of bad news.
So it is no surprise that OPP has mobilized more giving in response to the coronavirus emergency. On April 27th, Moskovitz released a series of tweets describing the outfit’s recent grants targeting COVID-19 health and research work.
"Friends and others have been asking us what we’re doing to respond to COVID-19, given that @open_phil has supported work on pandemic preparedness for several years and that this is exactly the kind of threat many of our grantees have been warning about," Moscovitz tweeted. "Because our focus has been pandemic *preparedness*, we’ve mostly supported forward-looking research."
But like many funders scrambling to mitigate the already terrible impact of COVID-19 and slow or hopefully halt its advance, OPP has steered some grantmaking to immediately pressing needs and opportunities. "In a rapidly developing situation like this one, it’s hard to know what clears that bar," Moscovitz tweeted.
The Quest for an Off-Ramp
Testing is clearly one topic that does clear the bar for OPP, with support for both diagnostic and serological tests taking up a good chunk of OPP’s recent COVID-19 giving.
"(W)e invested in @Sherlock_Bio, with an emphasis on broadly applicable diagnostics for viruses, a technology with significant implications for outbreaks like COVID-19," Moscovitz tweeted. Indeed, in the short term, it is testing that may affect the lives of the average person most immediately, sick or healthy. Widespread and accurate testing is at the center of recommendations and requirements for reopening the U.S. economy more widely. California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, has repeatedly stressed that vastly expanded testing will be required to guide decisions as the state relaxes social distancing orders and its return to normal activity.
Moscovitz tweeted about several of the specific grants OPP had made in recent weeks for COVID-19 work.
@broadinstitute is developing new tests and increasing its capacity by tens of thousands of patients, and @umichsph is producing antigenic proteins for use in tests that could expedite the selection of plasma from recovered patients for use in treatments.
And @MountSinaiNYC will measure how much asymptomatic carriers are shedding the virus, identify early cellular markers of severity of infection, track whether people could eventually be reinfected, and help enable clinical trials of convalescent serum.
On equipment: @ColoradoSPH is researching decontamination and reuse of PPE, which could inform @WHO and @CDC recommendations for healthcare workers, and @EWBUSA is designing, testing, producing, and distributing low-cost PPE and ventilators to hospitals in low-income countries.
An Array of Medically-Focused Grants
A quick scan of OPP’s grants database, on the organization’s website, shows recent COVID-19/coronavirus giving include millions for:
development of serological tests
global health impact calculations
novel respiratory helmets to aid breathing and keep people off ventilators
scientific tools for COVID-19 research
protective equipment, and more.
OPP’s overall priority remains preparedness. "Reducing the likelihood of such an outcome is one of the most critical projects philanthropy and government can undertake, which is why even today, in the midst of COVID-19, our biosecurity program has a lot of its energy focused on looking ahead," Moscovitz tweeted.
In February, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic accelerated into outright disaster, OPP had made a $6 million grant to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to support its biosecurity program. Another $1.8 million went to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (CHS) for its biosecurity and pandemic preparedness work, extending previous support to the center that’s amounted to nearly $40 million since 2016.
In making a $16 million grant to CHS in 2017, OPP called it “the preeminent U.S. think tank doing policy research and development” on pandemic preparedness and noted that “there is limited independent policy research and advocacy in the field of biosecurity generally.”