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Changing The World Through Collaboration
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Changing The World Through Collaboration

The superpower behind the coronavirus vaccine success.

8 minute read

By Arielle Domb
25th Feb 2021

It’s easy to forget that only six months ago, there was no guarantee of a Coronavirus vaccine. While everyone was hopeful, the history of vaccination development suggested there was a long way to go. For most diseases, developing a vaccine is a long, complex process, often taking more than ten years. The fastest any vaccine had been developed previously was for mumps in the 1960s. It took four years.

Unprecedented collaboration

What’s particularly remarkable about the Covid-19 vaccine effort is that companies that would usually be in competition with one another have been able to successfully work together, as Alethia Young, a top biotech analyst and head of healthcare research at Cantor Fitzgerald, in New York, observes.

“[Regeneron] did a collaboration recently with Roche, so that Roche could help them get more supply of their antibody—and that’s unprecedented,” she explains. “Normally, when you look in the area of oncology or in other spaces, Regeneron and Roche are competitors.”

“We are all coming together, and things are happening at unprecedented rates because we realize that we have a common enemy.”

George Yancopoulos, co-founder, president and chief scientific officer of Regeneron, echoes this idea, in conversation with the New York Times. “I’ve seen unprecedented collaboration from all forces. I can get on the phone and call my counterpart, Mikael Dolsten, at Pfizer, and his first question is, “Well, what can we do to help?”

“We are all coming together, and things are happening at unprecedented rates because we realize that we have a common enemy.”

Pfizer and BioNTech’s collaboration is another example of extraordinary cooperation that occurred across the pharmaceutical industry. “It’s remarkable,” says Margaret Hamburg, foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine. “There’s been more openness and sharing than I’ve seen in past crises like Ebola or Zika or H1N1.”

Dan Borough, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is also astounded. “From a research perspective, I have never seen such collaborative spirit, such open sharing of materials, data, protocols, thoughts and ideas [.]”

A collaborative mindset

The high transmissibility of Covid-19 has meant that finding a vaccine quickly was paramount. While vaccine development is usually an arduous process – laden with competition and secrecy between parties – the urgent, global need to halt the spread of the virus eliminated some of the usual barriers to innovation. 

“In normal times, trust is built by working successfully together over time,” reflects Darian Stibbe, Executive Director of The Partnering Initiative, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to driving cross-sector collaboration. “In the face of adversity, we assume a certain level of trust to start with.”  

Historically, medical innovations have accelerated in times of crisis. During the first world war, X-rays – which had been invented two decades earlier – began to be used by doctors to help injured soldiers, while the second world war saw the first mass-scale production of antibiotics. 

In the context of the current pandemic, David Rosenberg, pharmaceutical industry consultant and IP expert, sees a shift in motives for decision-making: personal goals like academic progress and profit become less important than the overarching purpose: solving a global health crisis. 

“I think largely open innovation is a mindset,” he explains. “Companies are willing to undertake scientifically and commercially riskier collaborations than they would in more normal times.”

Yet research tells us that collaboration is not only altruistic, but self-beneficial. As well as pooling resources and expertise, collaboration brings together a variety of different perspectives, enhancing innovative collisions and problem-solving abilities.

According to one study conducted by Harvard Business Review,collaboration had a major impact on organisations throughout the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Across dozens of organisations, including professional service firms, financial institutions, and health care organisations, their analysis revealed that the most highly collaborative workers — the top 10% — grew their business during the crisis and continued that upward trajectory afterwards.

“The most highly collaborative workers — the top 10% — grew their business during the crisis and continued that upward trajectory afterwards.”

They found that while the most collaborative workers “teamed up with trusted colleagues to identify and pursue new opportunities” – even at the expense of personal recognition – the least collaborative workers “erected walls around their projects” and diminished their network. One health care organisation found that when grant funding started to dry up, those who weren’t involved in a variety of research initiatives suffered because they struggled to keep money flowing into their labs.

The researchers put this self-interested behaviour down to “threat rigidity”: a response to anxiety that makes people more risk-averse in a crisis. Individuals adopt a “go-it-alone” mentality and are less likely to seek out differing perspectives.

These findings create a confusing portrayal of human nature. Why are some people able to collaborate, and others aren’t? Does adversity enhance our ability to trust one another, or make us trust-averse?

Our better selves?

In his book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman makes the case that in times of adversity, we see an explosion of altruism and cooperation. “It’s when crisis hits,” he writes, “that we humans become our best selves.”

Yet we are not always our best behaved when stress levels are high. In fact, stories of wealthy individuals hoarding PPE, or videos of fights over toilet paper in supermarkets around the world, might make us think otherwise.

According to the Swedish historian Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progressour ambivalent behaviour can be explained by our evolutionary make up. “The answer lies in our double nature,” he expounds. “We are open – and we are closed. We are traders, curious and adventurous and willing to cooperate for mutual benefit, but we are also tribalists, suspicious and hostile, and quick to divide the world into us and them and treat the world as a zero-sum game.” 

In other words, we have the capacity to be kind and helpful, yet the desire to protect our tribe can make us selfish. “Panic changes politics in a nationalist direction, such as with bans on the export of drugs and medical equipment,” he writes. “[W]hile that seems like the way to protect citizens, it forces other countries to do the same and results in shortages for everybody.”

Indeed, as Bregman elucidates in his book, distrust has a ripple effect. “If we believe most people can’t be trusted, that’s how we’ll treat each other, to everyone’s detriment.”

Threat rigidity is dangerous because it occurs collectively. When we shrink away from each other, we all end up worse off: depleting our networks, cutting ourselves from opportunities, resources, and potential for innovation.

“If we believe most people can’t be trusted, that’s how we’ll treat each other, to everyone’s detriment.”

What now?

As well as applauding the collaboration that has led to the development of several vaccines, we must not let this cooperative spirit die out. According to The Guardianby the middle of January, only 25 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine had been administered across all poor countries in the world, compared with 39m in wealthier ones. 

“A pandemic is not a league table,” writes Deborah Gold, Chief Executive of the National Aids Trust, in The Guardian“Vaccinating the population quicker than other countries should not be a source of pride. It is instead evidence of a global failure to grasp the very nature of a pandemic – a stupendously shortsighted act of collective self-harm.”

Indeed, the World Health Organisation has called for rich countries to show solidarity toward poor nations, by sharing vaccine doses with those unable to buy them. Initiatives such as the ‘COVAX Facility’ are pushing for such a future, pooling together the purchasing power of wealthier nations to secure a portfolio of viable vaccines and coordinating their distribution to billions of people worldwide. 

“We are all confined by limited resources,” says Shazeeb M Khairul Islam, Managing Director, YY Goshti, Bangladesh’s first independent social business incubator. “We need to be open to sharing each other’s resources. Linking companies with expertise in areas where each can complement and build upon the other is a necessary way forward.”

If we want to protect the health of everyone, we cannot afford to think single-mindedly. To face the complex, rapidly changing challenges of our time, we must pull together our resources and expertise. For a thriving world, we must see our challenges collectively.