On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake off the coast of Tōhoku, Japan sent shock waves (and tidal waves) through the Pacific Ocean, reaching the West Coast early the following morning. Seismologists predicted the arrival of the waves—which, while hardly cataclysmic, damaged boats in harbor up and down the California coast—within a 30-minute window, and people knew to steer clear. The only fatality recorded was that of an overly intrepid photographer near Crescent City, CA, who was pulled out to sea by the waves he sought to capture.
A similar dynamic of harm anticipated and minimized could have played out these past few months in Seattle, as it became clear to regional virologists that the shockwaves of Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak would reach Washington’s shores.
At the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, researchers rushed to develop testing for coronavirus in early January, recognizing it was only a matter of time before the virus would spread stateside. And when the first case did land, Dr. Helen Y. Chu, an infectious disease expert at UW, knew what she could do. As one of the leading researchers of the Seattle Flu Study, Chu had already been collecting nasal swabs from sickly Seattleites over the winter. She had the data already in hand.
The stage was set for an uplifting tale of timely action: be-scrubbed superheroes stepping in to nip a grave threat in the bud. Alas, that’s not the story being told today—not through any fault of Dr. Chu or the virologists at the UW School of Medicine.
Working feverishly to identify a patient sample that tested positive with coronavirus, they developed and validated a reliable test in a mere three days (a process that typically takes a month or more). Dr. Chu quickly sought permission to apply the testing to the Seattle Flu Study to identify other cases that might be spreading through the region.
Alas, permission was not forthcoming. Officials from the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration forbade Dr. Chu from conducting any tests. Her tests had not undergone FDA approval; nor were the Seattle Flu Study labs certified for clinical work; nor had patients given prior consent for coronavirus testing on their samples. At UW Medicine, days of awaiting approval dragged into weeks, as a comedy of errors ensued. Test kits shipped out by the CDC were plagued by invalid results; a copy of UW’s application for FDA approval had to be physically mailed, with CD-ROM or USB drive included, to be considered complete. (As Dr. Alex Greninger, an assistant professor in UW’s Virology lab, told the Times, “The virus is faster than the FDA.”)
And so the spread of COVID-19 continued apace, undetected, until Dr. Chu went rogue and began conducting tests in defiance of federal orders. The lab at UW, once finally certified, immediately began working around the clock to crank out tests for the region and hospitals around the country, aided by “rapid and overwhelming” volunteer support from the local community.
So as the CDC repeatedly fumbled over the course of a month in its attempts to get COVID-19 tests into operation around the country, a locally organized initiative in Seattle quickly became capable of producing 1,000 tests per day—in spite of regulatory interference and delays.
There are different ways to spin this story, so let’s talk about what it’s not.
This isn’t a story about the failures of the Trump Administration to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously or react competently. Dr. Chu and the UW virologists were hamstrung not by President Trump or Fox News but by many layers of plodding bureaucrats functioning more or less according to protocol.
Nor is it a story about big government versus private enterprise. At least not exactly. The UW School of Medicine isn’t some venture capital-funded startup or mom ‘n’ pop operation, after all. It has the scientific resources and talent it does in large part because of state and federal funds.
Instead, this is a story about the difference between what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls fragility and antifragililty.
Fragility, Taleb writes, “does not like volatility, and that what does not like volatility does not like randomness, uncertainty, disorder, errors, stressors, etc.” The antifragile, in contrast, does not merely withstand volatility (that’s “robustness”); it actually benefits from some degree of disorder, risk, stress, etc.
Your body, for instance, likes some degree of volatility: sudden bursts of exertion strengthen our muscles and bone density; intermittent fasting boosts metabolism and organ function. In a system of perfect stasis—like quarantine, perhaps—we grow squishy and terribly bored. Your laptop, in contrast, does not like volatility. It will not find a cold shower invigorating, nor grow stronger by uploading increasingly large files.
How does this pertain to the case of UW Virology versus the CDC? According to Taleb, big, centralized, heavily regulated systems—bureaucracies, banking systems, centralized nation-states, and the like—tend to hate volatility, which they seek to predict and eliminate. These systems calcify; they grow increasingly rigid and lumbering over time and eventually incapable of responding productively to disruption. In this sense they are fragile, for all their immense resources.
Entrepreneurship, decentralized city-states, heuristics, local efforts—these tend towards antifragility, able not simply to endure volatility but to grow stronger in response to it. And, boy howdy! does the current coronavirus fit the bill for furnishing volatility.
It makes perfect sense, in other words, that a smaller-scale operation born of personal initiative and local knowledge succeeded even as the CDC and FDA remained tangled in their own layers of administrative and regulatory processes. One also suspects that the UW Virology Lab will also emerge from the pandemic with significantly increased prestige, national renown, community support, and goodwill.
The conclusion we should draw from this story, I would suggest, is not necessarily that federal bureaucracy is incompetent. But this story should inform the direction in which we look for working solutions to the manifold crises caused by the spread of COVID-19. Perhaps nationalized, administrative efforts are in many respects singularly ill-suited to addressing current disruptions, in spite of their scale. Perhaps the moment demands not so much a sweeping exercise of governmental power than a sweeping transfer of that power (and those resources) onto state, local, and private agencies.
There was a time when devolve was not a dirty word, when it meant not “degenerate” but to delegate power to a lower level. As Taleb’s notion of antifragility becomes not just an interesting idea but an increasingly urgent imperative, it might be time to recover the original meaning of devolve.