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Two COVID pandemic stories: one agile, one definitely not

Last week, I re-read the Harvard Business Review article, How we did it, (Albert Bourla, May-June 2021). It’s a fascinating case study of how Pfizer developed its COVID vaccine in record time from March – December 2020. Ten years is the usual time to develop and launch a vaccine.

So, how did they do it?

  1. It was a team effort, including senior executives to everybody on the frontline.

  2. The purpose was paramount – to beat COVID with a vaccine. And this purpose galvanised people.

  3. Out-of-the box thinking was encouraged; what had worked in the past wouldn’t work in the new reality.

  4. The scientists were isolated from the financials and bureaucracy.

  5. Co-operation was embraced.

  6. Risks were taken.

  7. Everyone worked extremely hard.

Please don’t think I’m a fan of worldwide pharmaceutical giants, but this is a great lesson in adopting an agile approach in a crisis.

This weekend, I read the weekly newsletter I subscribe to from the John Hopkins, Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US. It’s a leading research body into pandemics and vaccines. (Sign up here).

It summarised one of its recent publications: Navigating the World that COVID-19 Made: A Strategy for Revamping the Pandemic Research and Development Preparedness and Response Ecosystem.

It argues that the distribution of COVID vaccines worldwide has remained inequitable. Most low - and middle-income countries (LMICs) haven’t received a sufficient supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

Multilateral initiatives, bilateral aid, and vaccine donations haven’t cut it. Wealthy nations didn’t share their scarce supplies of early vaccines; instead they adopted a ‘me-first’ approach. Geopolitical rivalries were at the heart of this inequity.

Co-operation wasn’t a key feature of vaccine distribution and out-of-the-box thinking wasn’t to the fore.

Agile and innovative? Far from it. The same old rules, silos and power imbalances were applied. What worked in the past played out again.

And a final sting in the tail:

“COVID-19 demonstrated that pandemics can be profitable for vaccine manufacturers. Record revenues for COVID-19 vaccines has drawn new vaccine developers into the market, but also made them less willing to enter into public sector and nongovernmental organization funding arrangements that impose equitable access requirements that could encumber potential profitmaking.”

We still have a lot to learn from this pandemic. Pfizer, and others, broke past patterns, but the world order stayed remarkably intact.

The John Hopkins authors point out that we could be in for another global pandemic at any time:

“What is certain is that national, regional and international responses to COVID-19 are already writing the opening chapters of the next pandemic.”


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