COVID-19 changes everything and nothing: we have to work together to win

Despite setbacks, experts agree that existing innovations paved way for new ones to fight pandemic

By | 3 minute read | February 17, 2021

nurse with covid-19 vaccine injection

COVID-19 vaccines were made possible through prior innovations, like mRNA research.

No one saw COVID-19 coming—and everyone did. No one was ready—and everyone was. The only way we’ve gotten this far is working together—and it’ll be the only way going forward.

Such were the powerful perspectives of a distinguished panel hosted February 10 by the Health Innovation Alliance. The group included COVID experts from healthcare, pharmaceuticals, government, technology and the military.

Reflecting on roughly a year of crisis and progress, the speakers had learned much and experience even more. They agreed that while a pandemic threat had been well-known, and an uncoordinated initial response allowed for it to rage across the globe, partnerships have, and must, persist. Notably, the special combination of public and private partners, and decades of interconnected innovation and infrastructure, enabled the historic response. Such work must be strengthened, not forgotten.

Amid shifting work cultures, research and politics, organizations and institutions nonetheless achieved a vaccine in record time. They are likewise using longstanding technologies and relationships to deploy, track and improve on these treatments as best they can, as quick as they can. It’s the height of ingenuity and a harbinger of things to come.

Below are highlights from the speakers. You can watch the full session here. And we hope you’ll join IBM in this historic work, as well.

Jim Mayne, vice president for science advocacy, PhRMA: The waves of innovation that we’ve seen, all that existed because the industry has a tremendous partnership with the federal government, with regulators, with academic researchers—and because we had a running head start. We had the technology platforms in place, we had the experience in hand, we had the expertise in house to pull this off.

Mike Popovich, chief executive officer, STChealth: The other key event here was the Affordable Care Act. That really was a driver to accelerate electronic data exchange between electronic health records and then the pharmacy management systems and state public health, all to support compliance of these public health reporting events. […] When the pandemic hit, one of the first things public health had to do was figure out: are these immunization systems, these health records and pharmacy systems, are these infrastructures ready to support whatever might be happening? […] In a pandemic, it’s just not the best time to develop a brand new system from scratch.

Retired Major General Lee E. Payne, MD, diagnostics and testing lead, US Department of Defense COVID-19 Task Force: These technologies and innovations are the kind we need to leave behind as a nascent technology for the department so we have better future pandemic preparedness. The fight against infectious diseases is never over. We’re gratified to see the cases declining across the country, but we are not letting our guard down. This virus has a vote in how the future’s going to play out, and we’re going to continue to innovate and expand our technologies to conduct the department’s mission.

Chris Moose, partner, Healthcare and Life Sciences group, IBM Services: We need to have a new way of dealing with biological threats: New surveillance tools, new supply chain resiliency tools, new ways for consumers to represent and understand their health status. Just as we have some systems in place to address some of this, it’s important that we come up with a holistic framework into which all of our tools can plug into and then make it even easier going forward. This cannot be a one-company solution or a one country solution. This can’t be IBM’s or anyone else’s. It’s got to be based on open standards with new ways of thinking about how government and private industry come together to solve these challenges. That’s got to be the lasting legacy of this.

Dr. Tara O’Toole, executive vice president and senior fellow, In-Q-Tel; former under secretary for science and technology, Department of Homeland Security: We are in a bio-revolution. The last 50 years of investment and basic research into how living organisms work is paying off. That’s how we got these vaccines. We are understanding how to program life. This bio-revolution is going to be more transformative of the world, of our economy, of how we make stuff, than the digital revolution before it was. Government has got to awaken to both the promises and perils of this bio-revolution. And one of the consequences of that awakening should be efforts to make much more robust, ongoing and differently flavored partnerships with the private sector from whence this innovation is coming.