I thought creating a COVID “Immunity Bubble” for a small group in a TV studio setting was possible. I was wrong.
This is the story of what happened, what went wrong, and what we learned.
Just as importantly, it is a story of what questions remain to be answered about the accuracy of testing before we can safely return to work, travel, relax in small groups, or see our kids off to school. If any of you have ever experienced a new confidence or an impulse to lower your vigilance with masks and social distancing after receiving a negative PCR test, you need to read this.
The story is presented in detail below, but the bottom line is as follows: Despite a total of 452 (PCR & Rapid Antigen) tests and four physicians on-staff during a highly contained small gathering, 24 people in our "Immunity Bubble" (~ 25%) tested positive for the coronavirus - including me.
I’m humbled and pained by what I learned.
Here are the details….
The Background & ConteXt
Every year, for the past nine years, I’ve run a conference called Abundance 360, an event that gathers ~400 entrepreneurs and CEOs to meet, brainstorm and learn about exponential technologies ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, to Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality and synthetic biology.
This January 2021, the event was scheduled to take place at a local LA Hotel, but the COVID-19 Pandemic rapidly shut down that option. We briefly considered a 150-person outdoor event, but ultimately chose to pivot to a Virtual Studio-broadcast production (January 23-26, 2021).
I was able to utilize the XPRIZE offices in Culver City (the employees were all operating from home as a normal course of pandemic operations). A team of vendors transformed the space into a large virtual studio with multiple TV cameras, stage lights, and a professional production team...the works.
Ultimately the >300 members of A360 would join virtually from their homes in 25 countries around the world.
In the month leading up to the A360 Virtual Production, my team and I were inundated with requests from members who wanted to participate in person. Having been socially isolated for almost a year, it was understandable that people wanted to connect in person.
My team and I remained firm to holding the event virtually, but we considered options like enabling a small group of our members (about 10%) to join in-person as a "studio audience." The question was, “Could we make it happen in a safe fashion?”
How we prepared
First: We researched the top PCR testing companies in Los Angeles with the goal of constructing an “Immunity Bubble." The PCR or polymerase chain reaction test detects the genetic information of the virus, its RNA.
Second: We notified the small group of A360 members who wanted to participate in person about the dangers involved in gathering. We described to them our plan to have a mandatory multi-stage testing protocol:
Everyone attending was required to PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival and send us their test results (which everyone did);
Next, everyone was PCR tested immediately upon arrival at the venue on January 23, 2021. A second swab was additionally taken from all those attending and from all support staff, and sent for confirmatory testing by a California board-certified lab;
Everyone was then tested once again every morning throughout the production;
Testing included all A360 members, A360 Staff & Faculty, AV Production and support Staff. In total, all our members were tested a minimum of *five* times during the course of 4 days. A total of >452 tests were collected.
Third: Masks. While we asked members to wear masks whenever possible between venues, and definitively until they had received their negative PCR test result, we did not make it a requirement to wear masks 100% of the time at the studio. This is definitely one of my biggest failings and one of the most important lessons learned. As we shall see, I allowed myself a false (and dangerous) sense of security based on the belief that sequential PCR testing serves as a safety mechanism… which I can now tell you is a fallacy. While high-frequency diagnostics is critical for monitoring and stemming the spread of this virus, it is a far cry from a foolproof guarantee that people will not get sick.
Fourth: Medical Oversight. We engaged a professional medical organization to provide the following services:
Physicians On-Staff: Throughout the production we had a minimum of four licensed doctors on-site at all times, supporting the entire team, answering questions and supporting COVID safety. Note: We engaged Dr. Matthew Cook, founder of integrative medical company BioReset Medical, and his staff only after the event to provide treatments for people who tested positive. Dr. Cook’s extraordinary professionalism and accessibility helped us accelerate the healing and recovery process.
Immunity Boosting: Intravenous vitamins and minerals.
Regenerative Treatments: We also supplied regenerative immunity-boosting therapies, known to boost COVID resistance.
Here’s what happened…
On the first day of the production, as everyone gathered, I reminded the group that safety was our TOP priority. Our mission was to maintain the tightest possible immunity bubble to assure safety.
What were the results?
In total, >452 tests were given to members, faculty and support staff during the course of four days.
We had one POSITIVE TEST detected prior to arrival day (Day-1): That person was not admitted to the production and participated virtually.
Of the remaining 451 tests, ALL REPORTED NEGATIVE during that entire time. We had one member who had previously tested positive with an Antigen test, so we re-tested that person with a PCR test, which was confirmed negative.
As a result, we felt awesome, we felt safe. But I was wrong.
Here’s what I learned…
The A360 studio production ended on Tuesday, January 26, 2021. Two days later, during a follow-up A360 staff meeting (where we re-tested everyone), much to my horror one of my staff tested PCR POSITIVE.
We circled the wagons that afternoon, conducted a second confirmatory test, and sent out two emails in rather rapid succession as data came in Thursday night and Friday morning. The emails and text messages notified our members, staff, faculty and vendors about the outbreak of COVID cases, asking them to immediately quarantine, contact trace, and re-test. We also provided detailed medical care instructions and access to two medical groups for COVID treatment.
The Final numbers… and the fallacy of testing
In total, here are the number of individuals who attended the production in-person and the number who tested COVID-Positive. The results for the AV group who wore masks are striking.
A360 Members: 30 members (on the average over 4 days). Of these, 12 Members contracted COVID.
A360 Faculty: We had a ~9 Faculty attend in person (the remainder were virtual); Of these, 4 Faculty contracted COVID.
A360 Staff: We had 10 staff support the production in person. Of these, 5 staff contracted COVID.
Audiovisual / Studio Team: We had a group of 35 expert AV/Production team that were isolated in one corner of the office running the live Broadcast. 100% of that team wore masks throughout the production. There were NO COVID Cases amongst this group. Bottom line again: Masks Work.
As of this writing, 90% of the cases have been fully resolved already and thankfully there were no severe cases within our group.
The bottom line is that I am sincerely and deeply sorry for the consequences of the choices we made. As a scientist, engineer and medical person, I believed we were using the very best that science had to offer. And I trusted that an immunity bubble was a “real thing”.
I no longer believe that.
In fact, further investigation into testing has revealed even more curious and concerning data. Once it was clear that I personally had contracted COVID-19 (which sucks as much as everyone says it does), I tested myself with Rapid PCR and Rapid Antigen every day, twice per day, for several consecutive days. I was flabbergasted that NONE of the tests turned up positive. I was consistently negative. Four days into my quarantine, I finally tested positive on a PCR “Spit Test” that measures viral load. I was told I was “highly infectious."
So, what’s up?
Then a friend of mine forwarded me this article from Harvard Medical School. Here’s a quote from the article: “An intriguing finding from the study was that there appeared to be a greater chance of people with blood types B and AB who were Rh positive testing positive for the virus. Even stronger evidence was assembled by the team that symptomatic people with blood type O were less likely to test positive.”
I find that fascinating, especially since I am Type-O Blood.
So, now, as we send our kids back to school with “routine PCR” testing to keep them safe, as we lower our masks in a friend group bubble saying, “I tested negative yesterday,” as we subconsciously trade vigilance for confidence post PCR testing, do you still believe it?
I thought five physicians and 452 tests and my entire safety team could maintain safety. I was wrong.
What’s more, new and virulent strains are emerging, and there are only three options… masks, vaccines and physical distance. I hope others can learn from my mistakes.
As even as we get vaccinated, or after we gain natural immunity from an active infection, the data is still unclear about how long that immunity will last against new variants.
By way of a small means of giving back toward these efforts, I am making a $100,000 donation to Frontline Families Fund. The Frontline Families Fund provides financial support and educational scholarships to the families of healthcare workers who have lost their lives to COVID-19. It is the bravery, courage and steadfast dedication of our frontline workers and their family who I most want to celebrate with this gift.
Thank you for listening, and again, my deepest apologies to all for whom my actions may have caused suffering.
Peter H. Diamandis