Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, thought he had coronavirus. His quest for the test reveals the progress we’ve made—and the work to be done.
Apple devices don’t get viruses — but Apple founders apparently do. In December 2019, Steve Wozniak and his wife Janet took a cruise through Southeast Asia. They returned to their home in California in early January with a troubling cough.
“We had the worst experience you can imagine,” Steve later said. Their illness began in the throat but quickly progressed into a severe lower respiratory infection with “convulsive” coughing. On January 13th, Janet was taken by ambulance to the hospital. “They did every test they could — everything they knew of — and they found nothing,” Steve said. At that time, there was no test for COVID-19 available in the US. Others on that same cruise ship returned home to Europe and later tested positive for COVID-19. Frustrated by their mysterious illness, the Wozniaks first spoke to Sanjay Gupta of CNN about their testing troubles.
Tech, meet bio
I first met Steve Wozniak when he keynoted SynBioBeta, the annual conference I organize on all things synthetic biology. Woz, as he is known, agreed to speak to a biotechnology audience about his own rich experience at the forefront of a different tech frontier: Together with Steve Jobs, Woz pioneered the personal computer, and proved that digital technology could impact more than just stuffy business life
This week, I had another chance to speak with Woz and Janet. The couple surprised the attendees of a virtual SynBioBeta town hall I organized on the topic of COVID-19 antibody research. They Zoomed in to thank the small army of biomedical scientists who have been working to help shed light on their illness — and develop antibody drugs
Antibodies are among the most promising therapeutics for COVID-19. These natural immune molecules are the body’s frontline weapons in the war against viruses. The right antibodies can stop virus particles in their tracks, and even flag them for destruction in the body. Today, researchers around the world are racing to identify natural antibodies that block SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. Some are even working to engineer such drugs from scratch.
After recovering and consulting with their physician, Woz and Janet wanted to donate blood samples to any labs working on diagnostics for the new coronavirus. They recognized that they were in a unique position: Given the timing and location of their travel, and their striking symptoms, they suspected they could have been among the first American’s sickened with COVID-19. Sharing their blood might help advance science, including research on antibodies.
The first specialist the Wozniaks reached was Trevor Martin, CEO of Mammoth Biosciences, a Bay Area company that is applying CRISPR to detect the new coronavirus. Martin connected them to Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease physician who directs the viral diagnostics center at the University of California, San Francisco. Simultaneously, Woz also sent blood samples to Stanford University for traditional coronavirus testing. Those results came back negative, which left Woz and Janet surprised rather than relieved.
“We’ve had all of the symptoms of the coronavirus, and we’ve never been so sick in our entire life,” Janet told me. Could they have been sickened by a primordial strain of the new coronavirus? Were tests giving false negatives? They wanted to push further.
I put the Wozniaks in contact with UCSF professor Joe DeRisi, who is also the co-director of the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub, a $600 million center funded by Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan
DeRisi is developing a new panel to detect antibodies against many different viruses all at once. That study makes use of a new instrument called Beacon, made by another Bay Area company called, Berkeley Lights, which I’ve written about before. The machine sifts through human cells to identify those that produce helpful antibodies. “Not only can we help Woz and Janet now, but we have a long term plan to roll these machines out globally so wherever a future pandemic arises, there’s a connected network of Beacon’s that can find the right antibodies immediately and avoid another pandemic. If we had an antibody now, we could all go back to work,” said Eric Hobbs, the CEO of Berkeley Lights. At the time of this writing, the results from Wozniak’s blood analysis are still pending.
I also connected the Wozniaks to James Crowe, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center and an expert in viral immunity. In mid-March, James was searching for blood donors who thought they might have had the virus in late December or early January because of the time it takes the human body to develop antibodies against new viruses. A number of initiatives have now sprung up to collect plasma from survivors, such as the Plasma Alliance and a Facebook group for COVID-19 survivors.
Crowe’s analysis indicated that the Wozniak’s blood samples, collected after they had recovered, did not contain antibodies specific for SARS-CoV-2. “The spike protein that we are using [for testing] is actually from the Wuhan strains that were originally occurring in China, which we presumed could have potentially been one of the exposures. [The Wozniaks] have antibodies to coronavirus internal proteins, but not to the Wuhan strain,” Crowe shared.
Had Crowe’s analysis determined conclusively that the Wozniak’s did catch COVID-19, they “would have been the first cases in the United States that were known,” Crowe said during the town hall. “Case 1 in the US was identified in Seattle — that’s what we know about. But I bet there were other individuals traveling in Asia who came to the US who were in fact the real first cases.” Crowe made these remarks just days before new reporting revealed that earlier COVID-19 deaths had occured in Santa Clara County, California.
The need for more — and better — testing
The Wozniak’s story highlights the urgent need for widespread COVID-19 testing. With new diagnostics technologies deployed, epidemiologists could both trace the history of the virus and bring an end to the world’s self-imposed lockdown.
To reopen our economy, said DeRisi, we need large-scale testing on two fronts. The first and most obvious is to identify who is infected and therefore spreading the virus. The second, however, will require enrolling large numbers of people who have recovered from COVID-19 so that they can be monitored for durable immunity. No one yet knows if those who recover can be infected again. If they are immune, how long will that protection last? Only months of antibody testing on a large population could reveal this important information, according to DiRisi.
“Listening in on this Zoom call is the best I’ve felt about coronavirus since we started hearing about it on a cruise ship in December, because there are so many smart scientists working on this pandemic,” said Janet. “I just feel like we are going to get this solved.”