Would a Longitude Prize speed production of a Covid-19 vaccine?

To stop economic destruction, we need to refocus vast resources from other productive activity – a truly grand prize might do the trick, says Chris Callaghan

March 28, 2020
vaccine needle inoculation injection
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The human and economic costs of the current coronavirus outbreak seem to be increasing exponentially as the search for a vaccine goes on. Great efforts in that regard are being made by academics and companies alike, and success seems inevitable given enough time. However, the exponentially increasing human and economic costs of the pandemic raise the question of whether progress could be accelerated.

An instructive case is Ebola. While the 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa was ultimately ended by academics working together with the pharmaceutical industry to develop a vaccine, the initial response to the discovery of the disease in 1976 was very slow. Insufficient attention had been paid to the problem, particularly by a pharmaceutical industry focused on more lucrative markets than Africa.

The economic incentives for the industry to pull out all the stops over the new coronavirus seem much clearer given that any company that finds a vaccine will have a captive market of billions of people, including in the world’s wealthiest nations. But that economic return would potentially be quite short-term if the virus mutates again or disappears, as Sars did. Medicines for chronic diseases tend to be prioritised because these are the most profitable.

Yet while companies look to their balance sheets and scratch their heads, finance ministers and corporate leaders look at theirs and tear their hair out. To stop the pandemic before economies are destroyed beyond all medium-term remedy, it may be necessary for them to induce a radical, rapid refocus of vast amounts of resources from activities where they are already productively, profitably employed on to a new goal – finding a treatment or vaccine – with an uncertain pay-off.

Crowdsourcing has historically cracked scientific problems considered at the time not just to be time-consuming to solve but actually unsolvable. In 1714, for example, the British government’s Longitude Prize was used to successfully crowdsource a solution to a problem bedevilling maritime navigation. The effectiveness of crowdsourcing in biomedical research is also well documented. Sites such as InnoCentive demonstrate that the technique is often more effective, quicker and cheaper than in-house research and development.

What if it were possible to do something similar for Covid-19? One option would be for the World Health Organisation or the United Nations to ask countries across the world to pledge and guarantee some significant proportion of their anticipated future costs of the epidemic (one, two, or three years ahead): a figure that would amount to many billions of pounds. Although the R&D costs (as with almost all biomedical crowdsourcing projects) would be borne by the solvers, and although individual countries would pay nothing if a solution was not found, the sheer size of the award might incentivise academic, industrial and government scientists to collaborate at an unprecedented scale.

Given that any solutions would still have to undergo safety testing and clinical trials, biomedical crowdsourcing might be able to “crash” the timelines of the invention portion of the biomedical research process – the most uncertain part of the timeline. Differences in the capabilities of different stakeholders would provide opportunities to develop synergies and economies of scale. Such synergies might increase the chances of success, but policymakers might also need to act in a way that complements the effects of such a large incentive, to mitigate unanticipated outcomes.

While academics are probably less likely to respond to financial incentives, the sums on offer might at least broaden the range of people pursuing solutions beyond the obvious suspects in biomedicine. For example, it might catalyse the application to biomedical science of novel applications in machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence. Proteomics, for example, is a field that is concerned with the biomedical opportunities offered by almost infinite combinations of protein strings.

The academic publishing and grant funding mechanisms might also be used to focus broader academic attention on addressing the pandemic.

History suggests other benefits of such huge R&D efforts. The industrialisation that occurred in countries locked in to solving the singular problem of the Second World War seems to have created a 30-year period of post-war global growth. If a biomedical crowdsourcing effort were undertaken on a large enough scale, the resources brought into the field might provide the capacity to solve many other health-related problems that have hitherto been unsolvable, to the ultimate benefit of humankind

You might object that the UK’s revival of the Longitude Prize in 2014 – meant to incentivise the search for an affordable, fast and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections so that the right antibiotics can be administered – has not yet led to the desired outcome. But this might be because the scale of the incentive – £10 million – was not large enough to shift activity rapidly out of already productive uses.

Just as lockdowns are large-scale efforts to match the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, a collaboration between governments to pledge a massive award would also be a response that is proportionate to the problem that they all face.

Chris Callaghan is a full professor in the School of Business Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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