The pandemic is certainly not over. There are even still possible nightmare scenarios for new variants of the virus which escape from the protection provided us by our current toolkit of vaccines and therapeutics. It’s certainly too early to write a thorough history of the COVID-19 experience. Nonetheless, it’s just plain wrong not to acknowledge the great progress which has been made against the coronavirus and to start to take stock of lessons learned from our community and societal responses to this great test.
First drafts of historical analyses are already being written. One interesting example is a big data study recently reported by CNBC.
The study crunches lots of numbers to rank cities around the world in their response to the pandemic.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly to folks in our area subject to a long-standing inferiority complex about Philadelphia, this city didn’t get an honorable mention in this analysis.
I beg to differ.
The study contains lots of interesting and important information, but like most such exercises, it suffers from the inherent limits of the keyhole effect – no matter how clearly one sees the portion of reality observable through a keyhole, one really has no idea what’s going on all around the keyhole, outside one’s limited field of vision.
This study has the bias of focusing actions directed or largely controlled by governments. Surely, public sector response to a public health emergency is a crucial ingredient in assessing an overall community response. But just as surely, the government response is not the whole thing.
Let’s talk a bit about just some of the responses generated by the Philadelphia region in our dynamic private sector and civil society, actions not commanded nor completely controlled by government, but yet having enormous impact both right here and far beyond.
Start with the big picture. By far the most important response to the pandemic has been the rapid development and deployment of the new class of vaccines based on messenger RNA technology. That technology was pioneered at the University of Pennsylvania.
If Philadelphia had made no further contributions in fighting COVID, it would still be a gold medalist among the world’s cities for the fact of mRNA technology.
But there has been so much more, notably Dr. David Fajgenbaum‘s Project CORONA which, staffed initially by volunteers burning the midnight oil, became and remains the world’s principle aggregator and disseminator of information regarding the development of clinical therapeutic protocols for the treatment of COVID, especially the many efforts by doctors around the world to repurpose existing medicines.
Countless people – locally, nationally and globally – are alive today, or have otherwise suffered less severely, because of the life-sciences excellence in Philadelphia.
Then there is the plucky biotech company located in Malvern, Ocugen, which is in the process of bringing to North America a whole virus inactivated COVID vaccine, Covaxin, created in India, which demonstrated clinical effectiveness versus the Delta variant and has the potential to offer broad immune response against variants. Importantly, this type of vaccine is built on the more traditional platform that many childhood vaccines feature and seems to have an excellent safety profile which may attract some of those most concerned about side effects.
Beyond the response from our extraordinary scientific community and biotech business sector, other aspects of Philadelphia’s civil society have also shown brightly throughout the crisis.
Think of the efforts organized by the high school student fellows of the Germination Project to bring 500,000 masks to Philadelphia and get them distributed far and wide in our community, in partnership with 32 local non-profit organizations serving the more vulnerable neighbors in our region.
Think of the enormous outpouring of corporate and individual philanthropy to help put computers and Wi-Fi in the hands of virtually every Philadelphia school student for the period of online learning and also to support our region’s wonderful and economically vital arts and culture institutions so that they could survive the sudden eradication of their earned revenues and be around to enlighten and enliven us all again today.
And, aiming to translate lessons learned from the ongoing private sector responses to the pandemic into concrete plans for the future, our region’s leading research scientists and health care specialists, representing institutions such as Penn Medicine, Jefferson Health and a who’s who of biotech and business executives, created The Ark, formally “the Ark Institute: A think and do tank for pandemic preparedness.”
So, that’s the bottom line. The recent ranking of cities’ responses to the pandemic focuses on that which can be achieved through discipline. America, starting with the place of its birth, Philadelphia, doesn’t do command, control and discipline, as well as some other places on the planet.
Sometimes, that’s a genuine weakness. But the flipside of the coin is what we do better than anyone else – innovate, with ingenuity, energy, and a commitment to disperse the fruits of those innovations as widely as possible. The Ark seeks to harness those great productive forces into a sustainable infrastructure for a better future.
Craig Snyder is CEO of Indigo Global Corporation and is serving as executive director of The Ark Institute for Pandemic Preparedness.