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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Crowdsourcing solution: A virus fix that passes the smell test

We need to focus on why so many people exposed to the virus don’t get sick

M y father now knows nine people who have been killed by the coronavirus. He’s 83 and entirely sound of mind and body. He is as fun to talk to as he was when he was 40. His only response to the news that he and my mother would be confined to the house I grew up in was to call the liquor store and order seven cases of wine.

But now he finds himself watching the annihilation of what is left of his generation. Many of his old high school classmates and business associates and tennis partners live in the Lambeth House, the retirement community of choice for the New Orleans gentry. It’s a peculiar group, with its own customs and language, maybe the only American subculture to use “cocktail" as a verb. Up until a month ago, the few hundred New Orleanians living at Lambeth House cocktailed together nightly, without any idea of the risks they were running. On 10 March, the first resident tested positive for covid-19. At least 52 others now have it, and 13 have died, nine of whom my father knew.

The surprise, if anything, might be that the virus hasn’t spread more rapidly. “Why don’t even more people have it?" asked Richard Danzig, a national security and bioterrorism expert who served as secretary of the Navy under President Bill Clinton. “Early reports stated that only about 10% of family members of people who fall ill are infected. Possibly the numbers are wrong, but we need to focus on why so many people who are exposed don’t get sick." The Lambeth House in New Orleans is a case in point.

One possibility is that the virus has a special need to be projected. “Shorter exposure in some contexts like church events seems to have more impact than prolonged exposure to infected family members at home even when no or few precautions were taken pre-symptomatically," Danzig wrote.

Another possibility is that a lot more people than we know— even 80-year-old people—have had the virus but never got sick enough to get themselves tested. That’s what’s so interesting about the simple, one-page letter written last week by two British doctors. Claire Hopkins and Nirmal Kumar, among the US’ most prominent ear, nose and throat specialists, had both noticed the same odd symptom in their coronavirus patients: a loss of the sense of smell. “Anosmia," it is called, but I suppose they have to call it something.

“In the past it was once in a blue moon that we saw patients who had lost their sense of smell," Kumar told me. “Now we are seeing it 10 times as often. It’s one of the things that happens with this virus." The British doctors compared notes with doctors from other countries and gathered what data they could. They concluded that roughly 80% of the people who lost their sense of smell would test positive for the coronavirus, and that somewhere between 30% and 60% of those who had tested positive for the virus had also lost their sense of smell. Those numbers might turn out to be a bit off—maybe even way off. But it’s precisely the scarcity of tests that makes the observation so intriguing, as it offers the possibility of a crude alternative to a test. Lose your sense of smell and you know to isolate yourself, even if you feel great. “We’ve had more than a thousand responses," Kumar said. “But almost no one really seeing it as a risk management tool."

The exception was a former Wall Street guy, an Englishman named Peter Hancock who had spent much of his career at JPMorgan, where, in the late 1990s, he had served as the bank’s chief risk officer. After the financial crisis he’d been tapped to run the giant risk management mess that was AIG.

Hancock was troubled not just by the dearth of testing but also by its distribution. To get a picture of the disease you wanted to test lots of people randomly. That didn’t seem like it was going to happen anytime soon.

He saw an analogy to pandemic risk in his early days at the Wall Street bank. “Those were the days when risk was being quantified in all sorts of new ways," he said. The bank’s traders organized their risks into buckets — there was one bucket for credit risk, for example, and another bucket for market risk. But there were all sorts of risks that didn’t fit neatly into any particular bucket. Hancock watched a rival firm lose $300 million in a day on its equity derivatives portfolio after an obscure court ruling involving corporate dividend withholding tax. He asked: How would you ever uncover such a risk? His answer was to crowd-source the problem. And so he created a program — which exists to this day — in which everyone in the bank was encouraged to alert the traders to risk. “There were two rules," Hancock said. “Your note had to be two sentences or less. And your boss was not allowed to edit it." The idea was to make it simple and painless for everyone in the bank to share their thoughts. These thoughts often wound up improving the bank’s risk management. Even though the people who supplied them usually knew nothing about risk management.

So why not do a similar sort of thing with the virus? Encourage everyone with access to the internet to report whether they can or cannot smell. Before long you’d have a pile of data that smart analysts could use to map it, and evaluate its risks. The results might not be perfect, but they were far better than what we have now. I love this idea. Hancock is well on his way to building an organization to make it happen—the website is sniffoutcovid.org. He is in the market for both widely admired people and data scientists. Here’s to hoping he finds them before my father calls me to say that he can no longer smell his Burgundy.

Michael Lewis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.Views are personal.

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