Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are donating $13.6 million to study COVID-19 spread in the Bay Area.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan and Facebook

On Wednesday morning, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — the philanthropic and investing arm of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan — announced it would give $13.6 million to fund a nine-month research project to better understand the prevalence of coronavirus in the Bay Area. The project will be a collaboration between UC San Francisco, Stanford University and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a nonprofit organization separate from CZI that has a lofty mission of curing, preventing or managing every disease on the planet.

“To reopen society in the Bay Area and keep healthcare workers safe, we need to first understand the epidemiology of this disease,” Priscilla Chan, cofounder of CZI, said in a press release. “How much of our population is currently infected with COVID-19? How prevalent is asymptomatic spread? And how can we use this information to better understand who may still be at risk in the future? There is no shortcut to answering these questions — it will require testing, retesting, and the sort of rigorous public health surveying this program is focused on in California.”

The project will consist of two long-term studies. The first will be a sample survey of a representative population in the Bay Area with the goal of figuring out how to keep transmission rates low as California re-opens without a vaccine. While scientists around the world are working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, even the most optimistic estimates expect a vaccine in the summer of 2021 at the earliest.

The second study will focus on Bay Area healthcare workers to understand whether COVID-19 antibodies will protect individuals from reinfection, and if so, for how long.

So far, CZI has allocated a total of $56 million to fight the coronavirus pandemic. These gifts include $25 million to Bill Gates’ COVID-19 Accelerator and $4 million to expand UCSF’s labs and free COVID testing. Zuckerberg and Chan have also been regularly interviewing top healthcare officials and medical professionals via Facebook Live in recent weeks, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

After years of missteps by the social network, including its handling of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and user privacy concerns, the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be an opportunity for Zuckerberg and his company to redeem its reputation. This is taking place amid turnover in Facebook’s board of directors: Kenneth Chenault, former CEO of American Express, and Jeffrey Zients, a former director of the National Economic Council, announced  in the weeks after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic that they will leave the board in May.

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