No, we don’t need a “Manhattan Project” to fight the coronavirus pandemic

By Dawn Stover, March 18, 2020

Illustration by Thomas Gaulkin. Coronavirus graphic via CDC; Maralinga nuclear test photo via InnoventionAustralia (CC BY 2.0)

Five days after 9/11, the George W. Bush administration declared a “war on terror.” We are still fighting that war—along with the wars on drugs, cancer, and other public enemies. Some experts have called for a war on climate change.

With the novel coronavirus breaking out across the United States, it was inevitable that some people would not only declare war on the coronavirus, but also demand a “Manhattan Project” to fight that war. But is this analogy really useful for anything other than getting people’s attention?

The healthcare system needs help, stat. In yesterday’s Boston Globe, Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts (a longtime champion of nuclear arms reductions) and Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital, co-authored an opinion piece headlined “We need a Manhattan Project to fight the coronavirus epidemic.” It detailed how the US healthcare system is being stretched beyond its ability to care for every patient and protect every worker, and called for a “Manhattan Project-type approach to fight the pandemic.”

The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of physicians, likewise warned yesterday that “this is war.” The executive vice president and CEO of the organization sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the federal government’s response to COVID-19, urging the government to “undertake a ‘Manhattan Project’ type effort to expand manufacturing capacity and produce the supplies needed to ensure the health security of our country.”

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In an opinion piece published today at FoxNews.com, Robert Siegel, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University, told readers that it is time for a “Viral Manhattan Project” akin to the massive US effort to develop nuclear weapons during World War II. Siegel characterized Covid-19 as a microscopic “invader” that has infiltrated America and said “the government’s multibillion-dollar proposals are woefully inadequate in response to the pandemic.”

Over-used and under-heeded. Like nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein of the Stevens Institute of Technology, I am torn about whether the Manhattan Project analogy is helpful. “I usually say that the Manhattan Project is a terrible analogy for R&D solutions (and taking it to mean ‘throw money at scientists’ is a bad take on many levels).” But in this case, Wellerstein tweeted, some aspects of the Manhattan Project might be a useful model—for example, deploying the Army Corps of Engineers to build factories that can quickly manufacture medical equipment and supplies.

The coronavirus certainly calls for all hands on deck, personal sacrifice, and a massive and immediate infusion of federal dollars to bolster the healthcare system. Directing war-related resources to the coronavirus problem is certainly warranted. For example, the president today announced that he will be invoking the 50-year-old Defense Production Act to expand production of medical supplies.

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However, as Wellerstein pointed out, there are many differences between the original Manhattan Project and the coronavirus response. One was a secret, years-long effort narrowly focused on the development of a new weapon. The coronavirus response, on the other hand, must be transparent, shorter-term, and focused on multiple solutions within the healthcare system and beyond.

The Bulletin was founded by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, and we will be celebrating our 75th anniversary this year. So comparing the coronavirus response with the Manhattan Project got my attention, but what about the general public? Many young people have no idea how many countries today have nuclear weapons, let alone any understanding of the Manhattan Project of their great-grandparents’ generation. And public health experts such as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci have warned that indifference to the coronavirus among young people is a key factor in spreading the disease to older people who are at much greater risk.

I agree with Wellerstein that the coronavirus comparisons to World War II are “closer than most modern-day calls for a new ‘Manhattan Project.’” But at this point, the analogy may be so over-used and under-heeded that it is not likely to rally many new troops to the coronavirus fight.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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Richard Cook

Certainly, I agree that The Manhattan Project analog is mis-applied and worn out too. But, a tiny example from The Manhattan Project story.
General Groves, head of the project, met with his building contractors and showed them blueprints for a 50,000 square foot industrial plant. He asked them if they could build it.
The contractors said of course they could.
Groves said he needed it in 120 days.
The contractors laughed and said that was impossible.
Groves said, okay. How about 90 days.
The plant was operational in 68 days.

Keith D VOGT
Keith D VOGT

Dawn… Just read your piece about “over used and under heeded” use of the Manhattan Project to describe what needs to be done to combat the onslaught of the coronavirus. I’m 82 years old and for the second time in my life I feel I’m at risk of dying because of something that is in the hands of others and out of my control. The first time was as a young sailor (1957) aboard a submarine off the coast of Vladivostok, Russia tracking Russian troop movements and being detected. Fortunately through the expertise of my Captain we escaped to see… Read more »

Alan Frick
Alan Frick

You got to be kidding me. You’re going to nit-pick on semantics??? NO One using the term Manhattan Project today re: Coronavirus is thinking about the creation of nukes.

We absolutely need a Manhattan Project-style approach to fighting this. Researchers and teams are spread wide apart, hidden by Corporate firewalls and intellectual property rules. They all need to be housed under one location in one facility with all the information sharing between teams attacking this thing on different fronts (vaccine, antiretroviral, etc.)

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