It’s been a year since we were all dropped into a sci-fi story called the global pandemic. Yes, it was last year on March 11 that the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. But unlike a fictional film script, we didn’t have time to prepare for the role nor could we flip to the end to decide whether we wanted to be part of this story.
Living under restrictive conditions for a year now, there are billions of us disrupted by COVID-19. It is quite humbling to think about the sheer scope of the pandemic and how it has affected us all as humans. The cost to human life is massive when we think about those who have been ill, the people who have died or lost loved ones, and also those suffering prolonged sickness from what is now known as "long COVID" with symptoms lasting weeks or months. The consequences of the pandemic touch all aspects of our lives – as individuals, friends, part of family units, students, employees, colleagues, community members, and citizens.
I thought I would take a different approach on the anniversary of the global pandemic and reflect on three positive things that have surfaced over the past year that I’d like to see here to stay. I’ve categorized them into three Cs: collaboration, communication and caring.
Vaccination programs are underway around the world. For example, in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracker shows more than 18% of the population has received at least one dose. In comparison, the UK is one of the countries farthest ahead with its vaccination program and has already reached more than 33% of the population with at least one vaccine dose.
It is remarkable to think that a year ago, there was no vaccine. And last March, it was unclear how quickly there could be a vaccine. If we looked at history, it took four years to get a mumps vaccination in the 1960s, but that was also based on groundwork started in World War II.
The world being in some kind of lockdown for four years was absolutely unthinkable. And so began a massive, global effort to search for solutions to our COVID-19 problem, ranging from vaccines to prevent us from getting sick to treatments that reduce the severity for those who do. United by a common problem, interesting collaborations blossomed. Pfizer and BioNTech announced their partnership in March 2020 and the goal to have a vaccine in clinical testing just a few short weeks later.
We also saw other collaborations between pharma companies, health authorities, government agencies and academic research facilities. A case in point is the AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford alliance announced in April 2020. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca-Oxford relationships yielded positive results with emergency use approval for their vaccines in many countries.
But more than drug development, there is also the massive task of manufacturing and distributing the vaccines. Last month, for example Novartis signed an agreement to manufacture the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. As we think about getting vaccines to remote and underprivileged countries in the world, collaboration will be key to make sure that no one on the planet is left behind.
This also raises the point: what else could be possible if drug makers collaborated on other treatments? Nearly 40 years on, there is no vaccine for HIV for example. While competition is great to challenge the status quo and drive innovation, we have seen this past year that collaboration is equally as powerful when united for the common good.
One of the trends over the past year has been one of transparency. Pharma companies and health agencies knew they had a big job ahead of them to convince the public that any vaccine was safe. Public distrust of vaccine motivations and past horrors from clinical trials gone wrong fueled fear and uncertainty about drug makers’ efforts. Left unaddressed, they had the potential to completely undermine the research and development work being done.
It was quite remarkable in September to see a press release from nine pharma companies – CEOs of AstraZeneca, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Moderna, Novavax, Pfizer, and Sanofi – issuing a statement called “Biopharma Leaders Stand with Science.” United together, they wanted to ensure the public that while they were moving with great speed, they were not compromising safety and quality standards.
“Guided by science” has been a key theme used by the industry as well as government and health authorities. The pharma industry alone can’t dispel public fears because they are also the beneficiary of the sales of vaccines and treatments. So this is where we saw the regulators step up to the challenge presented by COVID-19.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) for example, announced in September that it would require the publication of clinical trial data for authorized treatments and vaccines. In November, the US FDA published an explanation about its approach to emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. More recently, the EMA and Health Canada collaboratively published the full clinical data reviewed as part of their authorizations of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
In times of uncertainty, communication is critical. The global pandemic stepped up transparency of decisions related to clinical trials and drug authorizations that haven’t necessarily always been consistently or clearly communicated for the layperson to understand. This is a big step in boosting the confidence of the public and hopefully, this transparency trend will continue for non-COVID-related authorizations in the future.
My last “C” speaks to wonderful aspects of human nature. Faced with danger, we want to protect those most in need. Over the last year, we’ve seen this unfold in many different ways. Lockdown was difficult for many millions of people, but it was for the greater good to suppress the spread of the virus. Wearing masks is awkward and getting vaccinated is not the best experience, but they protect others from the spread of the virus.
Much of what happened over the past year was people thinking about others. But the toll of the past year was more than just containment of the virus. There is economic devastation in many sectors, including hospitality, travel, retail, and restaurants. There is also the emotional and mental health crisis that arose from people feeling trapped, alone and unable to cope. There is also the ongoing concern about burnout from employees unable to shut off working from home.
There has been a great sense that we are a global community – that we are in this pandemic together. And random acts of kindness and little ways of showing that we care for one another, that is humanity at its best.
I dislike the phrase “the new normal” because to me it feels like we are on autopilot. It’s like we slip from one way of being into another, without really reflecting on how or why we are doing what we are doing. To me, in spite of physical and emotional suffering, I believe the pandemic one year on highlights what is possible when we work together and care about each other.