A Happy Exception: The Pandemic Is Driving Global Scientific Collaboration

International science institutions are stepping up to the challenge of COVID-19. Now’s the time to start planning for a global public goods approach to vaccine distribution.

It is very likely that the COVID-19 crisis will lead to a partial deglobalization of the world economy, at least in the short and medium term. Corporations are already beginning to simplify their global supply chains, reducing their dependence on international outsourcing and relocating activities back home. Exports, foreign direct investments, and international mobility of human capital will fall, although how sustained this drop will be depends on the duration of the crisis and the recovery. On the other hand, protectionist and nationalistic policies will gain support. Many countries are closing borders unilaterally, hoarding scarce medical equipment such as ventilators and masks, taking control of national producers, and introducing barriers to exports.

In the sphere of science and technology, however, the opposite may be true. International collaboration in research and innovation has greatly intensified in the span of just a few months. The rapid mobilization of so many actors across the world to collaboratively develop and test new therapies and vaccines has been remarkable. Unprecedented international knowledge creation efforts are engaging multiple stakeholders such as hospitals, private companies, research institutes, government at various levels, and civil society.

The World Health Organization has acted as a hub to centralize and share information on data and research results. WHO has prescribed guidelines for national governments to test and trace COVID-19 cases, and launched innovative initiatives to accelerate the development of therapies and vaccines through international collaboration. Notably, the Solidarity trial collects data from multiple hospitals in over 90 countries that enroll their patients through the WHO website, following simplified procedures to enable even overloaded hospitals to participate. The website then randomly assigns patients to a trial drug among the four currently being tested (including hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir, which had already been undergoing tests for use in treating Ebola and SARS), allowing reliable comparisons of large-scale samples by an independent scientific board. According to WHO, the trial can reduce the time necessary to design and conduct clinical trials by 80%.

Complementing WHO, an array of specialized global research partnerships are also playing an important role in coordinating global efforts. These include:

  • The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international alliance to finance and coordinate the development of vaccines for emerging infectious diseases, cofounded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and a consortium of nations.
  • The Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), a network of research funding organizations from various countries to facilitate research on infectious diseases with pandemic potential.
  • The International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC), a global federation of clinical research networks to provide a coordinated research response to outbreak-prone infectious diseases.
  • The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a public-private partnership between the European Commission and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, to speed up the development of urgent medical treatments.
  • The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), a public-private partnership involving various multilateral organizations, philanthropies, pharmaceutical firms, and national governments, focusing on creating equal access to vaccines for children in developing countries.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the great value of these global partnerships—all of which have been established in recent years (the oldest, GAVI, in 2000, and the newest, CEPI, in 2017). Indeed, they are successfully managing to combine complementary knowledge, resources, and capabilities from public and private stakeholders across countries. For example, CEPI has already raised $750 million to finance the development of vaccines against the coronavirus, and GAVI has made $200 million available to help lower-income countries quickly respond to the pandemic, with an initial focus on protecting health workers and boosting surveillance and testing. Multilateral organizations and national governments should consider allocating a larger share of their research budgets for COVID-19 to these global partnerships, rather than to individual laboratories.

This pandemic has also demonstrated how the development of new digital platforms and open science practices may strongly contribute to enhancing global cooperation in research and innovation. Hundreds of studies have been published through existing open access repositories, and new initiatives have emerged to openly share publications and data, such as the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19). The open innovation community has relied extensively on existing tools such as Slack and crowdsourcing platforms such as InnoCentive to foster international collaboration. Many governments and organizations have launched challenge-driven competitions and hackathons with an international scope, such as the EUvsVirus Hackathon, launched by the European Commission to address some 20 imminent coronavirus challenges (e.g., fast production of equipment, scaling up production capabilities, knowledge and solutions transfer from one country to another), to take place April 24–26. Similarly, UNLEASH, a global innovation platform that connects talent with corporations, think tanks, nonprofits, and investors to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, organized a global digital hackathon last month that led to 31 new solutions addressing challenges linked to the pandemic. Besides the development of therapies and a vaccine, global innovation efforts to fight COVID-19 are typically focusing on new ways of producing ventilators, masks, and hand disinfection products, as well as new mobile apps that can help trace and contain the spread of the virus.

Despite the success of this new generation of global research collaboration mechanisms, there is still room for system-integration policies to target systemic failures at the global level, such as the weak coordination between the various existing global research partnerships, or between the different hackathons facing similar challenges and the multiple digital platforms offering open data and open access. It is critically important for CEPI, GloPID-R, ISARIC, IMI, and GAVI to build synergies and avoid duplications in their agendas, as well as to ensure that innovators do not waste valuable time navigating through an uncharted global system of uncoordinated crowdsourcing initiatives.

WHO member nations should enhance their financial contributions to the organization and empower it to establish additional global task forces as necessary, with the aim of achieving greater speed in reaching agreements and higher regulatory ambition in dealing with this pressing global crisis. From this perspective, we are deeply troubled by President Trump’s April 14 announcement that the United States would halt funding for WHO due to what he characterized as its mismanagement of the pandemic and adoption of a “China-centric” approach. Rapid global progress in ending the pandemic thus demands that other nations take the lead in promoting international collaboration, and in avoiding techno-nationalistic tensions with China.

Moving forward, the main challenge will be to scale-up global collaboration when, as many researchers expect, a viable vaccine is developed in the next year or so. Enhanced international public-private partnerships will then be necessary to establish cross-national licensing agreements and set up manufacturing facilities and logistic systems to ensure a fast buildup of a global supply of the new vaccine. In order to accelerate the uptake of potential vaccines and treatments, regulatory agencies (such as the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency) will need to cooperate more intensively than in the past to minimize regulatory hurdles. Big pharma will also need to cooperate and avoid the urge to take advantage of the circumstances to pad profits, and this itself may require collaboration between antitrust regulators across countries to ensure the even availability of affordable vaccines. The race for the vaccine should be a race between humankind and the virus, not between firms or countries.

National governments and multilateral organizations will face the challenge of reconciling the public interest with the legitimate business aspirations of pharmaceutical companies. Requiring companies that develop a vaccine to license the technology widely enough to ensure adequate availability is always an option. But it would be wise to explore creative ways of ensuring that the vaccine becomes a global public good immediately after its discovery while fairly rewarding the pharmaceutical firm that develops it. In line with recent proposals, this could be done through the joint purchase of the patent by a consortium of countries (perhaps through the G7 or G20), each of which would contribute to paying a predetermined price based on its population and national wealth. Whatever the composition of this consortium, the vaccine should eventually become universally available. This should be the case not only for humanitarian reasons but also because it is necessary for cutting transmission and preventing future outbreaks, as Bill Gates has emphasized. Indeed, it will be necessary to reduce the typical lead time of technology transfer to developing countries and to enhance development cooperation, if the world is to mitigate the devastating effects that this crisis will have on its poorest populations.

This crisis makes a compelling, even moral, argument for multilateralism, while providing important lessons that could also influence future responses to other global threats such as climate change. However, tensions between techno-nationalism and techno-globalism are unlikely to diminish in the future, as nations struggle with the limits to their sovereignty and consequent inability to use national policy for what are international challenges. Therefore, societies should not assume that international scientific collaborations will flow naturally, but rather should nurture them carefully—although urgently—through renewed diplomatic efforts, funding programs, and policy instruments. So far, global research and innovation collaboration on the pandemic is a positive story, but the world will need to fast-forward such efforts to minimize damage over the coming year.

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Cite this Article

Guimón, José, and Rajneesh Narula. “A Happy Exception: The Pandemic Is Driving Global Scientific Collaboration.” Issues in Science and Technology (April 22, 2020).