Lessons learned from COVID can transform how the world cures diseases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to mix and match boosters paves the way for further expansion of mRNA vaccines, which have revolutionized our response to COVID-19. While the first vaccine was administered less than a year after the pandemic began, the technology behind it was in development for decades. The urgency of the pandemic prompted regulators to relax rules and allow greater collaboration to speed these vaccines to market. We can apply those same principles to streamline and strengthen the innovation process for new technologies to fight heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other crushing diseases.

Reflecting on his revolutionary invention of the automobile, Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The pharmaceutical industry has made incredible progress in the past few decades, but its model is to produce faster and faster horses — incremental rather than disruptive innovation.

Instead of asking scientists and researchers to answer prescribed questions, creating the next revolutionary breakthrough starts with giving them to freedom to pose different questions and then follow those questions wherever they lead.

Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla’s electric cars and SpaceX’s rockets, relies heavily on negative feedback to guide his product development process. Unconventionally for a CEO, he follows what he refers to as “first principles,” or facts and truths rather than comparisons to other brands or products. Musk is unafraid to think boldly and redefine what’s possible. You may recall his promise to repair South Australia’s power system with the world’s largest battery in 100 days or provide it free of charge. He delivered ahead of schedule.

We need to create environments that enable this kind of undaunted thinking and expedited delivery. That’s how to stimulate disruptive innovation around ideas that currently sit just beyond the horizon of our understanding.

Just look at what Sweden has accomplished. With funding from the Swedish Research Council, the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden at Umeå University provides research grants for up to nine years for “curiosity-driven research.” This approach attracted Emmanuelle Charpentier to the lab in 2008, where she made discoveries with CRISPR/Cas9 DNA sequencing that earned her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and are revolutionizing science.

The fact is our healthcare system is laden with obstacles that make it hard for academic researchers, biotech firms, large pharmaceutical companies and government agencies to collaborate on novel ideas. Moving a new medicine through the approval process takes over a decade, on average. The urgent response to COVID-19 shrunk that timeline to about a year because innovators and regulators were allowed to ask different questions about how to solve the challenge, and they were free to follow those questions wherever they led. Throughout the process, these groups communicated openly and compressed timelines. Regulatory processes were expedited, clinical trials were quickly redesigned, and mass production began even while vaccines were still being tested.

After the pandemic ends, the natural tendency will be to return to the status quo, pre-COVID way the ecosystem operates. But why not take the flexibility and streamlining necessitated by the urgency of COVID-19 and apply it to the search for treatments for other diseases that place enormous burdens on society?

One of the primary reasons we have COVID-19 vaccines is because the mRNA technology that teaches the cell to fight disease was already developed. But Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Karikó, an early advocate for the therapeutic potential of this technology, spent years unsuccessfully pursuing grants and funding for her research. She was even demoted while on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. Undeterred, she conducted successful experiments and won the support of colleagues and, eventually, this led to the formation of Moderna. 

Not many innovators have the tenacity to stick with a promising idea the way Karikó did. And while billions of dollars are spent annually on clinical trials, very little of this research ever results in the creation of new therapies. So, to accomplish the seemingly improbable task of developing a vaccine for a virus the world had only learned of in a year, it not only took innovators but also a newly streamlined and efficient process that quickly brought their ideas to patients.

The extraordinary response to COVID-19 has shown the potential of human ingenuity to fight disease and improve life. If we can apply the lessons learned over the past year and a half —  asking different questions and giving scientists and researchers the freedom to follow them — we may enter a new golden age of medicine and save millions of lives in the process. 

Laurent Levy is co-founder and CEO of Nanobiotix, which designs, develops and manufactures nanoparticles for the treatment of cancer and other major diseases.

Tags Clinical trials COVID-19 vaccination in the United States COVID-19 vaccine Elon Musk Medical research MRNA vaccine Vaccine

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