Jonathan Brennan-Badal is CEO of Opentrons, the parent company of the Pandemic Response Lab. The valuation of Opentrons has increased 20-fold from $90 million to $1.8 billion since winning Government COVID-19 testing contracts from the City of New York. It also sequences tests for Coronavirus variants. Its record on sequencing has raised a lot of questions. NYC Mayor's Office (YouTube/Fair Use)

The Pandemic Response Lab, Mayor de Blasio’s ‘gold standard’ of testing, misses Omicron variant, its latest misfire after NYC was late to report the Delta and AY.3 variants

The world learned of New York’s first Omicron variant patient from public health officials … in Minnesota ?

By Louis Flores

Updated 04 Dec 2021 14:05 The COVID-19 testing operation created in 2020 by Mayor Bill de Blasio (Working Families Party-NYC) when New York City was the epicenter of disease and death was supposed to lead the City out of uncertainty. Since then, the testing company has blossomed in testing contracts and worth, but its record of leading has been called into question after it was late in reporting the newest strain of the Coronavirus to threaten New York’s future : the Omicron variant.

As global worry has spread about the reported rapid rise in cases of the Omicron variant in Africa — a “heavily mutated” strain, which has led to border closings and travel bans amidst a new round of confinements — the world turned to Minnesota health officials to learn about the first case of Omicron in New York City. The silence from the City-created testing facility, the Pandemic Response Lab, did not go unnoticed by online critics of the Government’s pandemic response. Mayor de Blasio has been praising the Pandemic Response Lab since it’s creation, even as some media questioned the return on the City’s unknown investment in the company. Though Mayor de Blasio has hailed the testing being done by the Pandemic Response Lab for public schools as the “gold standard,” that claim was later rejected by a report published by the Gothamist news Web site.

After Progress New York made an interview request to the Pandemic Response Lab for this report, its parent company published a news release, announcing the sequencing of the lab’s first detection of the Omicron variant. Representatives from the parent company later promised to appear for an interview with Progress New York, but they never answered the request after inquiring about the subject of the interview.

Visit C’est Vrai to learn more about Pandemic Response Lab .

The pandemic has created a fortune for the Pandemic Response Lab’s owner.

The Pandemic Response Lab has reportedly succeeded in cutting the time and cost it takes to process COVID-19 tests. Since it operates as a private sector business, its first order of business is profit, not the use of its funding to promote or protect the public health, regardless of cost.

The fortune-making from the Coronavirus pandemic has triggered accusations that the Government response to COVID-19 has led to large transfers of wealth. It’s unknown how much Government assistance the Pandemic Response Lab has received. It was created in 2020 by the City of New York’s corporate welfare arm, the New York City Economic Development Corporation. It began receiving testing contracts from the City’s public hospital system, and that has reportedly been expanded to include test contracts for individuals in the City’s jail system and the public school system.

As a result of its growth in Government contracts, the corporate owner of the Pandemic Response Lab, Opentrons Labworks Inc., was able to finance an expansion to Washington, DC ; Los Angeles, CA ; and Seattle, WA. In September, Opentrons secured $200 million in new investments by a team led by Softbank Group Corp., which valued the parent company at $1.8 billion, according to a report published by the Bloomberg news service. The pandemic has created a lot of wealth at Opentrons. Last year, the company’s valuation was only $90 million, according to the Bloomberg report, making its current valuation a 20-fold jump in worth.

There is a series of unanswered questions about variant sequencing at the Pandemic Response Lab.

The Pandemic Response Lab’s focus appears to be profit-making for its parent company. As a result, the City of New York was late in reporting the Delta variant. As revealed by Progress New York, the first time that the Delta variant was reported in New York City was in mid-May, in a retroactive disclosure in an overdue weekly variant sequencing study, even though the virus had by that time spread from India to Europe. Later, as the Delta variant was itself evolving into new sublineages, Progress New York noted that the City of New York was not reporting the AY.3 subvariant at a time when its spread was possibly threatening another confinement in the State of Israel.

In the face of these questions, Opentrons’ company information, printed in a financial news report, showed that it claimed that it detected the Delta variant, then known as the B.1.617.2 variant, in April, which, if true, leaves unexplained why the public was not informed of this detection until mid-May. Opentrons has also claimed that it detected the first case of the Omicron variant in New York City, even though the first reported New York City case was made in Minnesota after detection by its public health lab, according to a State announcement later cited by a report published in the New York Times. A separate report published by the Times highlighted the front-line variant screening of a public health lab in Nebraska, where researchers work in “a closet-sized room” with no windows and two chairs. For all Opentrons’ worth and access to Wall Street funding, the Times was turning to small, public health labs in States west of the Mississippi River for leadership on Omicron sequencing.

This isn’t the first time the Pandemic Response Lab has appeared to lead from behind. After online critics of the Government’s response to the pandemic raised questions about the falling sample sizes used to estimate the variants in circulation in New York City, Progress New York constructed a statistical model that showed that sample sizes had plunged below levels predicted by the model’s confidence level. A report later published by the Times noted the fewer samples being used in the weekly variant sequencing studies, which was attributed to a drop in testing, yet which the Times report claimed would put New York City in a position to be “ill prepared should more contagious forms of the virus cause new outbreaks.” The drop in sample sizes took place after the White House had set aside $1,7 billion for variant sequencing as part of the Government’s pandemic response.

It’s not known how much Government funding the Pandemic Response Lab has received for sequence studies. The City’s Economic Development Corporation did not answer requests to disclose the amount of financing that the Pandemic Response Lab received from the City of New York at its founding, or in the time since.