The past 12 months have been marked by tragedy and triumph, pain and progress, despair and hope. As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and sense its waning days on the horizon, we have reasons for optimism: multiple vaccines, novel treatments, an unprecedented amount of knowledge about a once-mystifying disease caused by a never-before-seen human pathogen — all achieved in less than a year. But as we look back and celebrate our collective successes, we would be remiss if we did not reflect on what we could have done better.
Medicine has a tradition of post-mortem analysis to encourage self-reflection, learning, and growth. An examination of both our successes and failures is critical to informing our response to future pandemics, which are certain to arise.
Although we are nowhere near claiming victory, it is not too soon to reflect on important lessons we have learned:
▪ We must address the inadequacies of America’s health care system. Even the most effective vaccines and therapies cannot correct underlying pathologies fueled by longstanding inequities and systemic injustice.
▪ No single institution and no one country has all the expertise, knowledge, and resources needed to mount a multipronged assault on a global pandemic.
▪ There is no substitute for sound scientific judgment in setting public health policy, nor for open communication and cooperation across national boundaries.
▪ We learn and innovate faster when we act in our collective interest rather than in self-interest.
▪ A global pandemic is a systemic disease of the planet, and as such cannot be controlled by local measures alone — no one is safe until we are all safe.
The most valuable lesson thus far is this: Faced with a common enemy, we cannot go it alone.
Global collaboration was, indeed, the impetus behind the formation of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness. Launched one year ago this week at a historic meeting held at Harvard Medical School, MassCPR offers a blueprint for global cooperation in pandemic preparedness that transcends scientific disciplines, disparate institutions, and geographic borders.
MassCPR was established as a multi-institutional collaboration led by a steering committee of investigators at Harvard Medical School, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts, their affiliated academic teaching hospitals and research institutes, and local biopharma companies. It immediately convened hundreds of researchers, physician-scientists, clinicians, and public health experts based in Massachusetts to rally a collective effort to confront a common foe.
On this journey of discovery, we have traveled with collaborators at the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health — including our esteemed colleague Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a renowned physician in China who is leading that country’s coronavirus response — and at other institutions in China and around the globe.
Thanks to funding from generous donors, MassCPR has awarded $17.6 million to 64 research projects at 15 partner institutions in support of the consortium’s six COVID-19 priorities and working group areas: clinical disease management and outcomes, diagnostics, epidemiology, pathogenesis, therapeutics, and vaccine development.
To date, MassCPR investigators have developed and tested the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines (two of the three vaccines currently approved for emergency use in the United States), supported development of critical shared resources enabling transformative research, and collected thousands of samples from COVID-19 patients that have provided a wealth of insight, deepening our understanding of how the coronavirus causes disease and how it can be overcome.
These triumphs of collaborative science extend well beyond MassCPR. Researchers across the globe have selflessly shared information, designed and deployed vaccines at unmatched speed, created lab-made antibodies to combat the early stages of COVID-19, deployed new treatments, and generated invaluable insights about a new human virus. And they are now generating a second wave of vaccines to combat rapidly evolving virus variants.
MassCPR has flourished due to the urgency of the pandemic and the availability of generous funding, which together have compelled participants to shed individual priorities and suppress institutional self-interest to forge a collective attack against a shared adversary. The successes to date give us hope that similar organizational structures can be effective in confronting other major societal threats such as persistent health disparities, racism, poverty, and climate change.
The MassCPR model serves as a road map for building a global Apollo-like project that brings together governmental and nongovernmental entities, academic institutions, industry, and philanthropists to ensure the generation of knowledge, the sharing of data, and the equitable distribution of resources across the globe in preparation for the next pandemic.
Collaboration is the antidote to even the most virulent future threats.
Dr. George Q. Daley is dean of Harvard Medical School. Dr. David E. Golan is dean for research operations and global programs at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Arlene H. Sharpe is codirector of the Evergrande Center for Immunologic Diseases at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and chair of immunology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Bruce D. Walker is director of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard. Together, they form the executive committee team of MassCPR.