COVID-19 Vaccine illustrates the transformational power of information

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The power of information and its criticality to society cannot be underestimated.  The development of vaccines for the COVID-19 virus is the latest example.  Information and the ability to put it to work, were central to the unprecedented success multiple pharmaceutical companies have had in developing their vaccines. The article “How Pfizer Delivered a Covid Vaccine in Record Time: Crazy Deadlines, a Pushy CEO” highlights personal, leadership, organizational and scientific at its best.  Jared Hopkins does a great job summarizing 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. Information is a common theme Information provides a means for accelerating timelines without compromising safety. Information not just in the sense of the need to know more, but in how information transformed scientific and business processes and decisions.  Without information and its direct application in these processes, it is doubtful any company could have cut development time down from an average of 10 years to approximately 10 months! The whole process started with information – in the form of the COVID-19 genome published by the Chinese to the rest of the world.  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.  Information further fueled Pfizer’s capacity to be agile 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 gave leaders the means to know progress in near real time, adjust their approaches and demonstrate their effectiveness. This is another example of information accelerating time while managing scale and quality. These are just two examples of information’s criticality in the process that the article brings to life. Information catalyst for leadership and action Information alone cannot create results.  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 the common connection and catalyst for transformation processes, for innovative solutioning, for making quick decisions and for not compromising quality Information and connectivity gave these leaders the means to create results that everyone hoped were possible.  Leadership alone goes some of the way.  Information alone 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 addressing 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 given prior assumptions, biological and physical constraints. The centrality of information and how it is used to transform processes, agility, awareness, decision making is a lesson we can all take away from this article and the experience to date.  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. These are not new, but the article’s examples bring them into clear focus. Information augments the physical world through providing ways to explore and model the real world. The COVID-19 genome represents a ‘digital twin’ of the virus.  It allowed software to encode mRNA took years off of the process with greater accuracy and control. 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 have to work through. It gave everyone access to information essential for adjusting in process rather than waiting for a management decision. Provides a basis for working together at a depth and speed easily 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.  A sign of the potential for new ways of working across traditional boundaries and barriers to create and accelerate rather than control and administer people. We are all reliant on 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. Developing an effective and broadly deployed vaccine is part of our response.  Like front line workers, vaccine development involves many people, companies, scientific disciplines, governments etc.  The complexity is mind blowing.  Leadership at all levels plays a critical role, and the article illustrates this. 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 information’s new role as they consider as they set their strategies, operating plans and seek to learn lessons from this pandemic.

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