What the coronavirus vaccine shows about the potential for innovation

Money and hard work gets the goods

A vaccine on a mountain.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The word "innovation" is now one of the most cursed in the English language. Silicon Valley robber barons recognized the cultural capital created by millions of inventors and scientists going back thousands of years, and colonized it to describe their ruthless business practices or semi-pointless new widgets. Innovation used to mean things like "developing new crop varieties that feed a billion people," now it means "creating a new way to trick people with compulsive personalities into spending $10,000 on Mobile Clans Fun Bucks."

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to cede the word entirely to Elizabeth Holmes or Mark Zuckerberg. Because the last several months have seen one of the most astounding examples of innovation in human history: the development of not one, not two, but now three different coronavirus vaccines. Thus far a Pfizer/BioNTech project, one from Moderna, and another from AstraZeneca/Oxford University all look good and will ideally start being distributed within weeks — and there are dozens more possibilities already in trials behind them.

It turns out human society can achieve a lot if we just try really hard. Who knew?

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The speed of this vaccine development is totally unprecedented. Previous vaccines have taken years at best and usually over a decade to be developed and proved to work. Now, scientists did have some advantages in this case, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to be relatively easy to target with a vaccine, and there are (alas) a whole lot of infections happening, which makes gathering the necessary data on efficacy easier. And the various scientific teams have built on years of past work developing a basic format for messenger RNA vaccines, which is what the first two vaccines use. But on the other hand, science was also starting from scratch. Unlike chicken pox or measles, which had been studied for decades before work on a vaccine started, scientists had to figure out how the virus works from a standing start — by sequencing its genetic code, analyzing its proteins, and so on — before getting to work on a vaccine. Yet all three were still designed and completed within a few months.

It seems what happened is that governments and private companies hurled massive quantities of resources and manpower at the problem. The European Union, desperate for a way to throttle the pandemic, directed billions in grants, contracts, and purchase orders as a promised reward. Even the Trump administration also pitched in several billion dollars in similar fashion with Operation Warp Speed. Then pharmaceutical companies found that their profit incentive lined up neatly with the need for a vaccine. Whoever could develop one and prove it worked fastest would reap enormous profits — and even the laggards would probably get a piece of the action too, since it will not be possible to produce any one vaccine fast enough to get it to the entire planet. So all the big players got their top scientists working around the clock.

There are a lot of ways innovation can happen, from the private tinkerers at Bell Labs to the fully government-run Manhattan Project to good old academic science. But major, rapid breakthroughs tend to happen just like this — when large available resources and expertise coincide with the kind of intense social pressure that focuses the mind and leads people to put forth their maximum effort.

The coronavirus vaccines are therefore remarkable not only as a singular achievement, but also as an example of what is almost certainly possible in other areas of vital importance. Scan the field of climate policy, for instance, and there are dozens of different scientific or engineering problems that look very much like a potential coronavirus vaccine looked in February. There are advanced wind turbine designs, thorium nuclear reactors, zero-carbon techniques for forging steel and producing cement, advanced battery technology, geothermal power and heating, and many other ideas, which all have either viable theoretical designs or prototypes, but are not yet ready for wide deployment.

If those technologies got the same kind of bottomless money and pressure behind them as the coronavirus vaccine has gotten, it's a safe bet most of them could be brought online in a matter of years or even months. The same might be true for other diseases without a good vaccine, like HIV, dengue fever, or malaria.

Some years ago it was briefly conventional wisdom among center-right economists like Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon that America was running out of innovations. But we can't know whether or not that is true until we try as hard as possible to find some — and there are plainly a lot of potential possibilities being ignored or starved of attention. All that is needed is the government action and funding to get the work started.

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