Shipping behemoth Amazon is increasingly throwing its weight into the pandemic response, sharing its staff’s web and research design expertise with scientists across the country and digging into its deep pockets to fund and shape a smattering of Covid-19 studies and projects.
The company is backing a wide range of efforts, from funding a clinical trial of blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients to delivering at-home coronavirus tests to health workers and others in the U.K. Much of Amazon’s work is focused on people at a high risk of being exposed to the virus, such as delivery drivers, grocery store staff, and health care workers — all roles that exist within Amazon and its subsidiaries.
Many of the projects won’t bear fruit for the next several months, or even years. And Amazon’s multimillion-dollar investments in scientific research could come across as cold comfort to workers at its shipment facilities, many of whom have been calling for basic safety precautions since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March. Earlier this week, a worker at Amazon’s Staten Island, N.Y., fulfillment center died from Covid-19.
Still, Amazon’s efforts have the potential to give a boost to several Covid-19 efforts. In addition to funding, the company is lending the expertise of its staff, with some Amazon employees helping to set up coronavirus research websites and others joining weekly virtual meetings with researchers across the country to pitch in on projects. Here are four key areas of Amazon’s efforts in the pandemic response.
Searching for clues in the blood of Covid-19 survivors
Amazon donated $2.5 million in grant funding to a Columbia-led clinical trial — approved by the Food and Drug Administration last month — to study whether blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients could help prevent infections in high-risk people or treat severe cases of the disease. Every week, a team from Amazon meets virtually with Columbia researchers including W. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity and the principal investigator on the trial, to talk about the study, how it is progressing, and to go over logistics and pending approvals.
Amazon was also influential in the design of the study and suggested that health care workers be included as one of the groups on which the trial focuses, Lipkin said. He added that the Amazon team includes Vin Gupta, who Amazon hired in January as a principal scientist for Amazon Care, its health care initiative.
“I’ve been very impressed with their level of commitment,” Lipkin told STAT.
Connecting potential plasma donors and researchers
Amazon Web Services, the company’s web services provider, has pitched in to help build an online registry for potential plasma donors. The site, created in collaboration with Michigan State University, lets potential donors sign up to be contacted by local researchers. So far, the site enrolled 10,000 potential donors, an Amazon spokesperson said.
Nigel Paneth, a professor of epidemiology at Michigan State and the lead on the website, said AWS contacted him out of the blue one day to ask if they could help.
“I didn’t even know AWS existed” before this, Paneth said. “The only Amazon I knew was the river in Brazil and a shipping company. Next thing I know, there’s a conference call for getting this website started.”
Paneth and his colleagues now meet weekly with several AWS staff members to troubleshoot problems and talk about the website’s latest needs. They’re also working on developing a donor-matching program that would allow donors to connect with researchers accepting donations in their area.
The website also has resources for clinicians on the ongoing research of blood plasma for Covid-19. It lets clinicians record notes on how patients who’ve received plasma for Covid-19 outside of a clinical trial are responding to the treatment and also lists FDA-approved clinical trials of plasma. The researchers hope the responses offer an early look at how plasma is affecting patients while they await the results from clinical trials.
“Hopefully we can start to see a little bit of a signal before the results from the randomized controlled trials come in,” Paneth said. “No one knows whether this is going to work.”
Studying the spread of Covid-19
Amazon is also funding a study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, based in Seattle, that aims to collect data on Covid-19’s infection rate, how long an infected person remains contagious, and whether they develop immunity.
The study, similar to the other research efforts Amazon is supporting, is focused on high-risk people, including workers in health care and food service workers as well as custodians and members of law enforcement. Participants send weekly nasal swabs — the kind that requires people to sample the very back of their nose — and monthly blood samples to the researchers at Fred Hutchinson. The specimens are collected at home using swab kits and blood collection devices made by Seattle-based diagnostics company Tasso Inc. Amazon is providing an undisclosed amount of funding to the research, as well as collaborating on the study design and lending web hosting support from AWS.
Delivering at-home tests to health workers
In the U.K., Amazon is helping to ship at-home coronavirus tests to symptomatic essential workers including health care workers, teachers, delivery drivers, and supermarket staff. The government sends the test kits — made by telehealth company Medbelle and diagnostics company Randox — to Amazon. The company then distributes them at no cost, a spokesperson for Amazon U.K. told STAT.
Amazon Care is also delivering and picking up self-swab kits to people in Washington state’s King County as part of a research effort backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, or SCAN.
Experts noted that because much of Amazon’s effort focuses on people at high risk of exposure, it could stand to help the company’s own employees and those of its subsidiaries, which include its delivery service, grocery chain Whole Foods, and Amazon Care.
“They’re trying to find ways they can mitigate risk to their employees and customers,” Lipkin said. “They had early exposure to the impacts of this pandemic.”