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COVID-19 Vaccine illustrates the transformational power of information

By Mark P. McDonald | December 12, 2020 | 0 Comments

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The development of vaccines for the COVID-19 virus is the latest example of the power of information.  What you know and learn combined with the ability to put it to work are central to the development of this vaccines.  They illustrate their potential in every business.

The article “How Pfizer Delivered a Covid Vaccine in Record Time: Crazy Deadlines, a Pushy CEO” highlights personal, organizational and scientific leaders at their  best.  Jared Hopkins does a great job describing the major events in Pfizer’s journey to a vaccine.  It is among the first and so far, best summaries of the creation of the vaccine. I highly recommend reading the article and supporting materials on the web.  As I read through the article, I was struck by how information has transformed the vaccine process.

Information is a common theme in doing the impossible

Information provides a way to accelerate timelines without compromising safety. Information not just in the sense of the need to know more, but in how information transforms decisions and scientific and business processes.  Without information and its direct application in these processes, it is doubtful any company could have cut vaccine development time down from an average of 10 years to approximately 10 months!

The whole process started with information – in the form of the published COVID-19 genome.  To quote the article,

“Unlike the months it takes to cultivate a vaccine in test tubes, designing an mRNA vaccine would be quick. BioNTech simply plugged the genetic code for the spike protein into its software. On Jan. 25, BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin designed 10 candidates himself.”

They would ultimately create 20 candidates based on programming genetic information, which accelerated the biologic processes previously bound by cultivating potential vaccine candidates.

Information provided a basis for making hard decisions throughout the process.  It fueled Pfizer’s agility in clinical trials.  The article points out the need to shift the populations involved in clinical trials, to both expand the number of participants and effectively test the vaccines in COVID-19 hotspots.  Again, quoting the article,

“The company deployed mathematical models that crunched infection rates down to ZIP Codes, to identify hot spots.  … There were two problems. People weren’t signing up in target areas as fast as the companies expected. And the mathematical models weren’t doing a good job at predicting virus hot spots more than a few weeks out.  …. Within days, researchers stopped enrolling patients at certain sites, including in New York City. They upped the recruitment goals in emerging hot spots such as Argentina. They also expanded the trial by 14,000 subjects to increase the odds of exposure.”

Information intense clinical trial processes let leaders know progress in near real time, adjust their approaches and demonstrate the effectiveness of those changes. This is another example of information accelerating time while managing scale and quality.

Information catalyst for leadership and action

Jared Hopkin’s article rightly concentrates on the leadership, collaboration and dedication of people at Pfizer, BioNTech, government regulators, etc.  I can see books in the near future touting the dedication, intelligence and new management practices related to producing the vaccine.  The point of this post is to highlight the role of information as a common connection and catalyst for transforming processes, for innovating  solutions and for making decisions without compromising quality

Information and connectivity gave these leaders the means to create results that everyone hoped were possible.  Leadership goes some of the way.  Information goes some of the way, but together, they make the impossible possible.

So What?

The world is fortunate that companies, scientists, business leaders, healthcare workers, government officials, etc. are working on the vaccine.  It is the most critical and immediate problem in the human world.  This article concentrates on describing Pfizer’s journey to date.  The results from Pfizer and other firms developing vaccines have been nothing short of amazing.

While few of us will ever face the magnitude of the challenges taken on by Pfizer and others, we can recognize the potential for information to transform the way we work and the results we achieve.  Three takeaways came to mind while reading the article.

  • Information augments processes by exploring and modeling the physical world. The COVID-19 genome represents a ‘digital twin’ of the virus.  It allowed software to encode mRNA that took months or years off of traditional process with greater accuracy and control.
  • Information accelerates learning and adjustment while reducing management overhead and bureaucracy. Mathematical models and clinical trial management shrank trial and error and reporting delays that many of us still work around. It gave everyone access to information essential for adjusting in process rather than waiting for a management to make a decision about what to do.
  • Information provides a basis for working together at a depth and speed not possible with traditional work practices and processes. Information was not hoarded or used as an instrument of control.  The Pfizer example involves literally thousands of people in different departments, companies, countries, governmental bodies etc.  All remote and physically distant.  It is an example of the potential for new ways of working across traditional boundaries and barriers to create and accelerate processes rather than control and administer people.

The complexity of creating the COVID-10 vaccine in the midst of a global pandemic is mind blowing. We must honor the selfless dedication and efforts of frontline healthcare, first responder and essential workers.  Without them, the pandemic would be unimaginable. We should never forget their service, nor forget to thank them.

Information is a common catalyst for leadership at all levels.  Information creates change, expands the art of the possible and activates innovation.  Every leader should consider how they should transformation their organizations with a broader view of information and its role in how we think, model, decide and do our work.  The Pfizer experience offers the latest example of what is possible.

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