Today’s report of a viable vaccine for COVID-19, developed by Oxford University’s Jenner Institute in the UK, highlights the true value of teamwork.
The original team of scientists responsible for the breakthrough work in a small academic lab with the technology to develop a vaccine. But that on its own was not enough. They needed to change scientists’ attitude toward collaboration. They needed the expertise and capacity to run large scale clinical tests and to manufacture the eventual vaccine on a scale, and at a price, that would benefit the whole world.
Interviewed about their achievement, the Jenner Institute scientists are clear about the breakthrough that made this possible. First, there was a strong and compelling shared motivation: "we envisaged people dying on a huge scale. Patients and also colleagues who would be treating them. That galvanised us into participating in the strongest possible way."
Second, there was a moment of agreement. Inspired by this shared motivation, every senior scientist agreed to let go of his or her own personal academic fiefdom and to collaborate openly.
Then came the division of critical tasks, allocated to the experts with the best skills and assets to tackle them. This too was a consensus. One which allowed Professor Andrew Pollard to concentrate on the methodology and resources for a successful clinical trial. The scale of which was so huge that he had to broker another collaboration, this time with the UK’s Central Government - the only organisation large enough to solve the enormous logistical challenge of testing tens of thousands of people in a timely fashion every week.
Meanwhile, Professor Sarah Gilbert devoted herself to securing a continuous funding stream. And Professor Sir John Bell took on the task of securing the right manufacturing partner. In this, he balanced the slightly conflicting desires of Oxford University to own the vaccine and make money, with not exploiting the circumstances of the pandemic. At least one global pharmaceutical company refused to partner with this intention. But eventually, Astrazeneca emerged as the right candidate. They agreed to manufacture the first year’s production at cost price. After that, if booster doses are needed, patients would pay for them - but only in developed world countries.
This shining example of truly collaborative behaviour is much needed at a time when commercial use of the term ‘teamwork’ is almost as spoiled as the term ‘partnership’. Poor leadership and insincere business behaviours have meant that both have become bywords for covert exploitation of people and relationships. Wouldn’t it be great if the method behind this great scientific breakthrough was to influence a change in business cultures?