2201120 covid-19 vaccine
Search for that definitive COVID-19 cure could have taken longer if governments and other stakeholders were working in silos. The same sense of co-operation will need to last to tackle the next big crisis. Image Credit: AFP

The news that the Oxford/AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is up to 90 per cent effective - after reporting its Phase-3 global trials - will come as a great relief.

We’re immensely proud of our role in enabling clinical trials involving 10,000 participants in five different Brazilian states, in what was one of the largest trials of any COVID vaccine in the world. Due to the vaccine’s comparative ease of storage and distribution, the economic viability of this vaccine means that the end of this pandemic – while still a way off – can now be glimpsed.

However, we should also reflect on what allowed this vaccine to be developed at such breakneck speed. In fact, only 44 days separated the first email requesting if the Lemann Foundation could help to establish the first clinical trial of this vaccine anywhere in the world and the injection of the first volunteer in Sao Paulo.

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Getting to trial runs

When Brazilian Health Regulator Anvisa approved the trials on June 2, governments – at the national and state level - universities, foundations, and the private sector, had to move quickly, breaking through cultural and institutional barriers to establish the trials. In particular, we owe heartfelt thanks to the volunteers, many of whom came from the ranks of healthcare workers who, despite already contributing so much, were prepared to put themselves at potential risk for the greater good.

Despite billions being spent on the hunt for a vaccine not a single dose would be produced without the courage of these anonymous volunteers.

Apply lessons of co-operation

However, the benefits of collaboration between governments, universities, private sector companies, NGOs and civil society are not only limited to pandemics. The complexity of problems like refugee displacement, climate change, educational barriers and hunger today makes it impossible for any single organization to solve them alone.

In fact, a Harvard Business Review analysis of 15 of the most successful social and humanitarian projects around the world found not only that 80 per cent needed government action or policy changes to work, but also that nearly 75 per cent required active co-ordination across a number of sectors.

In any collaborative effort, each organization brings its own strengths to the table. governments have unparalleled access to resources, regulatory influence and reach. Universities bring cutting edge research and data, while private sector companies have financial nous and technical knowledge.

And NGOs often have valuable on-the-ground insight and specialized policy knowledge gained over decades and civil society brings crucial peer-to-peer networks. To find effective solutions, we often need a range of different actors.

Build those networks now

It is important to recognize that the ability of diverse organizations to work together smoothly is not created overnight. Great collaborative efforts often rely on partnerships built over time, and these connections are what makes it possible to respond quickly when crises appear.

It also takes time to try out new approaches to a problem and build up an evidence base that gives confidence to potential partners: the Harvard Business review study of successful social change efforts also found that nearly 90 per cent of projects had taken 20 plus years to bear fruit.

Once COVID-19 is defeated, there will be other problems to face. The World Bank predicts that the pandemic will push 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021 – the first rise in more than two decades.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need to cultivate the habit of acting together now, and start investing in public sector leaders who can tackle the problems of tomorrow.

Brace for next challenge

The key lesson of 2020’s pandemic is that we need to rediscover the art of collaboration. It may seem an obvious demand, but in a world riven by ideological clashes and bitter divisions, working together has fallen out of fashion.

But as the birth of COVID-19 vaccines has shown, the painstaking work of building coalitions and partnerships - especially in a divided world - will be essential if we are to address the other complex threats facing humanity.

- Denis Mizne is CEO of the Lemann Foundation, which is the Brazilian foundation that funded the first ever trial of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.