The Man Who Will Teach NYC to Make Coronavirus Tests
Zak Khan turned the unemployed into his own army and unused spaces into factories to make tests. Now he’s teaching New York how to do it.
A furloughed house cleaner drove through the night from Indiana and arrived in lower Manhattan early Monday afternoon in a rental truck packed with 50,000 COVID-19 test kits donated by a little lab determined to make a big difference.
“It's amazing, I’m glad I get to contribute,” Julie Radford told The Daily Beast minutes after she pulled up outside the New York City Department of Health building on Worth Street. “I clean houses during the day, and I was laid off. I get to see New York and help people not get sick.”
Radford, who is 29, had brought along a friend, out of work bartender Alexis Wise, 27. The two were on their first visit to New York, having been dispatched by Zak Khan, co-owner of Arias Diagnostics in Carmel, Indiana. The 41-year-old former Marine has contracted to follow the donation with the weekly sale of at least 50,000 more tests kits to New York. But lest you think he is cashing in, the arrangement is in force only until he has taught the city how to manufacture its own.
“And become self-sufficient,” Khan said.
Khan has an early morning routine of 500 push-ups, and he was in the midst of it on March 31 as he listened to a replay of Gov. Cuomo’s COVID-19 briefing the previous day. Cuomo spoke of the many families who were losing loved ones.
“I was listening to him, and I took what he said to heart, “ Khan recalled. “I was in tears. Normally, I don’t like admitting that kind of stuff.”
At one point, Cuomo issued a call for the private sector to join the fight against the virus in whatever way it could. Cuomo said there was an urgent need for testing kits.
“Gov. Cuomo is a very inspirational guy,” Khan later noted. “You listen to him and you say, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’”
Khan is the owner of several surgical centers and during the opioid crisis, the doctors asked him to set up a lab that could test whether patients were taking their medications as prescribed. A suggestion that a new crisis was looming came in early March from a business partner and friend since their Carmel High School days, molecular biologist Vipin Adhlakha.
“He said, ‘We should probably start looking at COVID-19 tests. It’s going to be needed if you look at what’s happening in Italy,’” Khan recalled.
Khan acquired the necessary Thermo Fisher COVID-19 PCR testing hardware and was ready to meet the threat when it arrived in Indiana. But they had increasing difficulty acquiring test kits as FEMA bought up whatever materials were on the market.
Khan and Adhlakh decided the only solution was to make the testing kits in house. They began doing so in accordance with FDA guidelines, initially using space in a pharmacy. Khan put out the word to area physicians and began testing on March 26.
Five days later, Khan heard a replay of Cuomo’s televised plea.
“He said he needed kits; ‘How can you control the disease if you don’t know who has it?’” Khan would recall.
Khan conferred with this partner, proposing they begin manufacturing kits by the ten of thousands.
“We got to do this,” Khan recalled saying.
“Absolutely, let's do that,” Adhlakha replied.
Khan secured a $4 million loan.
“I said, ‘We’re going to do this in a big way,”” he remembered.
The operation expanded into a disused gym. Khan became that rare employer these days who was hiring, signing on more than 100 people. They included idled staff from Anthony’s Chophouse in Carmel. The proprietor, Anthony Lazzara, agreed to let Khan use the restaurant's refrigerators to store his viral transport media, the harmless but heat-sensitive material used when conveying the swab sample to the lab.
The supervisors at the temporarily shuttered surgical centers included a fellow former Marine named Brandon Ehret, who had served multiple deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ehret was placed in charge of the testing kit surge.
Khan went to Mayor James Brainard of Carmel, who had embarked on testing every first responder, including the police chief, who tested positive but was asymptomatic. A second round of tests would include city employees who deal with the public. The incalculable value of a human life aside, Brainard put the $175 per test cost in perspective when comparing it to the $100,000 plus cost of a single hospitalization.
“A bargain,” Brainard told The Daily Beast.
Brainard did not know Cuomo but had served with Mayor Bill de Blasio on the board of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and he reached out to de Blasio, who had visited Carmel in happier times. De Blasio was now in a desperate search for testing kits as New York became the epicenter of the pandemic and bodies filled refrigerator trucks.
"We have scoured the world looking for test kits on the open market,” de Blasio told the press. “It's been extraordinarily frustrating. We've had so many good people searching everywhere just to buy test kits to get a reliable supply. It has not been possible."
Khan now offered to help the city begin manufacturing its own test kits. He would in the meantime donate 50,000 test kits and sell the city 50,000 each week long as was needed
"I'm sure New Yorkers wouldn't have thought the cavalry would come from Carmel, Indiana, but it has,’” de Blasio later told reporters.
Khan sounded puzzled when he later learned of the animosity between de Blasio and Cuomo.
“I didn’t know that,” he told The Daily Beast.
Khan continued to credit Cuomo for inspiring him to answer the plea for help.
“I want to thank him,” Khan said.
Khan was also inspired to offer 50,000 test kits to his home state. The Indiana State Health Department (ISDH) said that it was already in partnership with pharma giant Eli Lilly “and other labs.” Khan wondered how the state could be turning down test kits amidst an acknowledged shortage. The ISDH then insisted it had never declined Khan’s offer, but had plenty of viral transport media and only needed swabs. Khan dropped 2,000 swabs by the office of the Indiana State Health Commissioner, Dr. Kris Box, the next day.
“[Box] has never turned down an offer of supplies that would increase testing in Indiana and gratefully accepted Dr. Khan's offer of swabs,” the ISDH said in a statement to the Daily Beast.
Early Monday afternoon, Khan’s cavalry arrived in New York in the person of two young Indianans with brightly dyed hair—one red, the other orange—who otherwise would have been cleaning houses and tending bar.
“We got here,” Radford said.
Radford allowed that she was unnerved by driving a 10-foot box truck in her first venture through the Holland Tunnel.
“The tunnel scared the shit out of me,” she said.
But Radford and Wise were unafraid to step out onto Worth Street in a New York gone eerie where thousands have died.
“We have masks,” Radford said.
They opened up the back of the truck to reveal the city’s new trove of weapons in its most desperate fight since the influenza pandemic of 1918. The sterilized swabs and collection tubes were in white boxes. The viral transport media was in coolers to keep it chilled.
“We’re about to take them up to the office for them to make sure they’re the right ones and everything,” Radford said.
She said she hoped they might get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty before they headed back home. But of course that was not why they had come.
“We’re just glad we could help,” Radford said.