Amazon is secretly working on a cure for the common cold

Key Points
  • Amazon is working on a cure for the common cold in its highly secretive skunkworks group, "Grand Challenge." 
  • The code name is "Project Gesundheit," according to several people familiar with the project.
  • Scientists have tried to develop new treatments for the cold since the 1950s, as the weeklong illness costs the economy at least $40 billion every year. 
Amazon searches for cure to the common cold.
Guido Mieth | Getty Images

Amazon is working on a cure for the common cold in a years-long, top secret effort called "Project Gesundheit," according to three people familiar with the effort. 

The company has more than 100 working out of Grand Challenge, a research and development group that sits under its cloud division, AWS. A small team in this group, including scientists and technologists, is now working on a treatment for the world's most common illness. 

The team is hoping to develop a vaccine, but is exploring a variety of approaches to the problem. Internally, the effort is sometimes referred to as the "vaccine project." 

Colds cost the U.S. economy an estimated $40 billion per year, both because of physician visits and lost productivity, according to a landmark 2003 study from the University of Michigan. That number is likely far higher today. That study found that colds, which often last a week, are also responsible for nearly 200 million missed school days, which often mean that parents also have to stay home. 

Grand Challenge, which hasn't been publicly acknowledged by Amazon, has a mandate to tackle big problems, ideally finding solutions that will have a major impact on humanity. The group, which has sometimes been known by its code-name "1492," is run by Babak Parviz, who previously worked at Alphabet's research and development effort, then known as Google X. CNBC first reported on the team in 2017.

The hope is that Amazon can build its next big business internally, rather than face disruption by outside forces. Grand Challenge isn't solely focused on health care, but the medical sector has been a major focus from the outset for employees because the market opportunity is so large. Health care is a $3.5 trillion market in the United States alone. 

The people familiar with the effort declined to be identified because they're not authorized to speak about internal projects. An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.  

An elusive cure

Finding a cure for the common cold -- which in about 75 percent of cases is caused by a class of virus known as rhinovirus -- has been a major challenge for a few reasons.

"The prevailing wisdom is that it's impossible because there are so many different viruses that cause the common cold," said Greg Yap, a health-focused investor with Menlo Ventures. There are 160 different known strains of rhinovirus. 

Yap noted that a company like Amazon could focus on the most common strains of the virus first, but questions how much impact that approach would have over time. As Yap points out, colds are highly prone to mutations, meaning they can develop a resistance to drugs or workaround any vaccines extremely quickly. 

Other biotech experts say a novel treatment for the cold is plausible, but it would have to be highly accurate in order to generate profits down the road. 

"Yes, we can certainly develop better treatments," says Mike Pellini, a venture capitalist with Section 32 and a veteran diagnostics executive. "But the biggest challenge is that the drug has to have almost zero side effects," he explained, because people in general can make a full recovery in a week or two. The side effect could potentially be more serious than the cold itself. 

"There's also a major question of whether insurance would pay for it, like they do with the influenza vaccine," he said.

Amazon is working on a variety of health projects across the company. It has a team called Amazon Care that is developing a virtual medical clinic for its employees, which also offers nurse visits to the home. It has a pharmacy team under PillPack, a start-up that it acquired in 2018. Alexa, its voice assistant, has a group dedicated to health and wellness uses.

Amazon isn't the only organization throwing resources into a cure for the cold. Researchers at Stanford and the University of California are working on a new approach that involves temporarily disabling a single protein inside our cells. Researchers at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, which is funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, the physician Priscilla Chan, also chipped into the effort. 

The researchers behind that group said, in a statement, that they were close to a cure. Stanford virologist Jan Carnette noted that it's somewhat surprising that the scientific world hasn't made further progress. As she put it: "Our grandmas have always been asking us, 'If you're so smart, why haven't you come up with a cure for the common cold?'" 

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