The development of a COVID vaccine is one of the most closely watched human experiments in modern medical history. I’ve been thinking how this has played out. What were the broader forces that allowed this kind of high speed COVID vaccine development?
1l URGENCY: As we watch the undulating behavior of SARS-CoV-2 across the globe, we can see that a delay of a matter of months can come with the cost of thousands of lives. It was a race against time. When working against a hard deadline, focused endpoints can force us to ship the most remarkable things. This defining medical moment should serve as a form of inspiration in what we do as individuals, start-ups, systems, and nations. Most importantly, how might we apply this level of urgency going forward to solve some of healthcare’s most pressing challenges?
2l COLLABORATION: The successful development of these vaccines was a collaborative effort between public and private stakeholders. Individually, this success would have been considerably more difficult, if not impossible. As an example of that cooperation, the NIH invoked a sweeping public-private partnership between Pharma and federal researchers (ACTIV) that objectively aligned stakeholders toward a standardized, measurable end-point.
3l PROCESS: How we got to today from early 2020 is less about the novelty of vaccines as much as it is our capacity to put things together in such an accelerated way. The process of getting the vaccine somehow seems more remarkable than the vaccine itself. I suspect that these 21st century processes of biological engineering will eclipse the small minded widgets that impress us now.
4l OPEN SCIENCE: In a world more interconnected than ever, today’s medical challenges don’t obey political or geographic boundaries. And so, the hive mind of scientists across the globe will be critical to future challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic. Developed nations should be motivated to see the health of the global community as central to the health of their own citizens. While open science certainly wasn’t central to what happened this year, the COVID-19 pandemic showed some hint of public health globalization. Labs and data repositories crossed silos to make information more readily available to those doing critical research—Digitalization made this kind of data sharing easier. Early on, Chinese scientists shared the genome of the virus, which was a critical first step toward vaccine development. More than 115,000 publications have been published related to COVID-19, and more than 80% can be viewed by the general public. While competition and IP incentives remain critical for innovation, open dialog and open science can and should be shaped to be mutually beneficial for all.
The combined human-tech intelligence that helped develop the COVID-19 vaccines will serve as an example of what’s possible when technology meets human will. The distribution and adoption of the COVID vaccine, assessment of vaccine durability, and nimble response to SARS-CoV-2’s creeping evolution will bring new challenges in 2021. How we mobilize communities and social technology to combat vaccine hesitancy will be our next great challenge. But for now, we should celebrate this historic feat.
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