Here is something on which we can agree: The once-in-a-century pandemic caused more than a public health crisis of suffering and fatality. Measures to combat the contagion — social distancing, masking, telework and vaccine mandates — touched every part of our lives. These took a heavy toll on child and elder care, student life, behavioral health, the economy and politics.
Is there any good news to extract from this ongoing public health threat?
Here is one idea to ponder. For those like me working in the life sciences, the pandemic demanded a rapid and effective response of new treatments and preventive measures. This transformed how we work.
Scientists are a competitive lot. They solve puzzles with single-minded purpose. Rarely do they reveal a discovery before reporting it in a journal.
This slow and linear process is not the best way to counter a frightening and mutating virus. A potent and swift response means that every possible expert joins the effort. This is how the pandemic changed the work life of life scientists. It made teamwork the imperative over the output of any individual.
This framework was born out of necessity. It calls for partnership and data sharing. Only by sharing insights before publication can others truly exploit any discovery. Otherwise, its full potential to improve the public’s health is not unleashed.
This is what happened during the coronavirus outbreak. In one recent case, South African scientists generously shared data that revealed the Omicron variant. This sounded the global public health alarm and guided international efforts to combat the emerging health challenge.
Examples like this forced life scientists to collaborate like never before. They assembled productive teams into public-private partnerships and shared with others what was learned, well before publication. This hastened progress against the pandemic.
There are ample examples of this dynamism. Here is one: At breakneck speed stakeholders from the National Institutes of Health, the academy, industry and elsewhere produced practice-changing COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines. Although Operation Warp Speed did not support research and development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, it facilitated the supply and distribution. Collectively, agents are now in hand for those at COVID-19 risk.
Trailblazing RNA-based vaccines against this virus were engineered, tested and clinically validated in less than a year. This caused more than U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. It made the virus yield to human ingenuity. The fastest approval of a vaccine before now was for mumps. It took four years to bring to market.
What fueled these successes was they did not depend on any single person’s skill set. Rather, they engaged motivated teams with diverse talents and impressive assets. Together they achieved what was otherwise beyond their ken.
An exemplar is the Apollo Moon Shot program. There were just 32 Apollo astronauts; only 12 walked on the lunar surface. But 400,000 engineers, scientists and staff members from NASA, the military and others in the public and private sectors collaborated to get the astronauts to the moon and back again safely. History records few of their names. Yet without their combined efforts, this feat would likely still be the subject of science fiction.
Public-private partnerships like these are difficult to sustain. Journalism chronicled how the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union drove Americans to reach the moon first. But once that mission was achieved, its driving force dissipated. It was hard to marshal support for another bold mission that might similarly capture our imagination. And disputes over scientific credit or patent rights work against such partnerships.
Let’s work to sustain the partnerships we built against the coronavirus. There is plenty of reason to do this. One is that we must be ready to confront any new coronavirus variant. Another is to stay vigilant to detect, prevent, and treat any new emerging viral outbreak before it becomes a pandemic.
Public-private health care partnerships have value beyond control of an epidemic. They can be leveraged to reduce anguish from cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other desperate health challenges. We must not delay progress against these scourges.
It is worth acting on this COVID-19 lesson: What infects one of us can harm all of us. Each of us has a stake in joining forces against a shared peril. And those of us in the sciences need to guard against complacency or a return to business as usual. We took hold of the unique power of public-private partnerships and must not let it fall from our grasp. That’s because we can do far more together than apart.
Ethan Dmitrovsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a physician-scientist, president of Leidos Biomedical Research and director of the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.