He publicly downplayed the risks of COVID-19 early in the pandemic, incorrectly predicted it would vanish within weeks, and denounced as “fascist” shelter-in-place orders that affected his California car plant.
Nevertheless, Elon Musk, the outspoken multibillionaire head of Tesla and SpaceX, is donating $5 million through his foundation to two Boston researchers who helped create a vaccine and a diagnostic tool for the coronavirus.
The Musk Foundation is making the donation to Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a member of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard University, as well as to Galit Alter, a professor of medicine at the Ragon Institute. The gift was confirmed by the institute.
Barouch helped develop a coronavirus vaccine with the health care giant Johnson & Johnson that is in a late-stage clinical trial. Alter has developed tests to screen for the antibodies that indicate exposure to the virus, including one used by employees at Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX.
The donation was first reported by the Boston Business Journal and will be evenly divided between the labs of Barouch and Alter.
“We’re delighted that he has provided this generous support for our program,” Barouch said.
A spokesman for Musk’s foundation did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment.
Musk, who briefly topped Forbes’s list of the richest people in the world this month by surpassing Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, seems an unlikely source for the gift, given controversial positions he has taken during the pandemic.
In March, he predicted in a tweet that cases of COVID-19 would probably vanish within weeks, a prediction that the news site Politico recently included among the “most audacious, confident and spectacularly incorrect prognostications” of 2020.
Musk skewered stay-at-home restrictions during Tesla’s first-quarter earnings call in April, saying the lockdown that affected operations at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., was “forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights.”
And last month, he confirmed that he contracted the coronavirus in November despite previously tweeting that he had tested both positive and negative for the disease and calling the testing process “extremely bogus.”
But Alter says she saw a decidedly different side of him in a series of phone calls.
She began talking with Musk in June after they were connected by Dr. Eric Nilles, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Musk wanted to know about antibodies testing and how he could screen the approximately 8,000 employees of Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX for exposure to the virus.
“I’ve always thought about him as a polarizing person,” said Alter. But in phone conversations, including one that lasted 50 minutes, she said, he peppered her with probing questions about the potential threat to employees. “It was completely different than the persona you see in the media,” Alter added.
Barouch agreed. He has spoken with Musk half a dozen times since August, sometimes alone and sometimes with Alter and employees of Tesla and SpaceX on the calls. Musk’s earlier public skepticism about COVID-19 never came up, Barouch said, and the entrepreneur “has always been very open to the emerging science.”
“I’ve been impressed with Elon’s desire to learn about COVID-19 vaccines and his commitment to trying to make the world a better place,” Barouch said.
As a result of the conversations, Alter’s lab has regularly tested more than 5,000 SpaceX employees for coronavirus antibodies, she said.
Dr. Bruce Walker, founding director of the Ragon Institute ― which was established in 2009 with a $100 million donation from Terry and Susan Ragon, billionaire tech entrepreneurs ― said he was thrilled with the donation.
“Few people realize how catalytic philanthropic support is for scientific advances,” he said.
Barouch and Alter collaborated on the research that led to the potential J&J vaccine. It uses a modified adenovirus that causes colds to deliver part of the distinctive spike protein on COVID-19 into cells to trigger an immune response. Barouch’s lab designed the delivery system, and Alter developed a test to screen for antibodies in a series of studies.
By the end of the month, researchers expect to know whether the vaccine was safe and effective in a study of 45,000 volunteers. If it is, the vaccine could quickly become the third cleared for emergency use by the US government, which has ordered 100 million doses and has an option to buy 200 million more.
Like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration last month, it uses new technology. But it has two distinct advantages. It requires only one shot, not two, and doesn’t need to be shipped frozen, as they do, which should simplify a rapid rollout.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.