Commentary: The key to beating the coronavirus? Innovation

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We call ourselves a nation of innovators. As one who has taught and written about the innovation process for more than 30 years, I believe it can be a lens that provides a strikingly different view of all that is being done to fight COVID-19.

Innovation starts with identifying unmet needs and designing and putting into practice what is needed to meet those needs.

Overcoming COVID-19 is the ultimate unmet need. What has become clear from the painful experience of the last three months is that there are three key innovations needed to meet its challenge.

—Flatten the curves: There is not one big curve, there are many. This innovation would focus on the many hot spots where the fight is already underway. The nation has health care providers who are fully engaged, capable and heroic in treating COVID-19 victims. But they can’t get ahead of the virus without fully funded and comprehensive testing to learn who has the virus, including when no symptoms are present. The person leading this part of the effort would be clear about the enormous scale of testing needed and the resources required to get the job done.

It is one thing to say there are millions of tests out there. It is a travesty that so many people still say they have symptoms but cannot get a test. Even if we are late in getting this testing underway, it is still needed as new hot spots emerge and more feasible as testing techniques improve. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March, President Donald Trump said that “as of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test (can have one).” It wasn’t true then and it still isn’t. It should be.

Testing data will set the stage to flatten the curves, and provide the information needed to build the top-to-bottom logistics system this innovation calls for. It includes knowing what is needed and where, and the supply chain that will move each item — protective equipment, ventilators and anything else needed to fight the battle at hand — to exactly where it is needed when it is needed.

This nation has enormous expertise in logistics. There is no reason we cannot know exactly where each piece of equipment is going from the moment it is manufactured to the person who will use it. There would be no more health care providers saying they need masks and federal officials saying the masks exist, go find them. Each state would be integrated into this federally led logistics plan. To use the well-worn World War II analogy, we did it with millions of troops and supplies. We can certainly do it now.

—Reopen the economy: This innovation is based on building confidence and again testing is key, but testing of a different type. It is the testing that will tell us, before controls are lifted, if a region is virus-free or if it is just waiting to explode into a hot spot. It will include tests that can be used by individuals to see if they and the people they interact with are free of the virus. It will reveal who has antibodies. With widely available and easy-to-use testing, people will have the confidence to go back to work, school or dinner with a friend. There is plenty of talk about the need to reopen the economy, but no sign of a clear plan to meet such an obvious need. Sure, it would be expensive, but cheap compared with the alternative.

—Develop the vaccine: This is the innovation that will eliminate our fear once and for all. In the early 1950s, fear of polio was second only to fear of nuclear war among the American people. The sense of relief when Jonas Salk announced his vaccine was enormous. When he announced the vaccine in a radio interview with the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, Salk was asked who would own the patent. “Well, the people I would say,” he replied. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” The leader of the COVID-19 vaccine effort would take into account everything from coordinating and funding the massive research effort already underway to a fully funded plan for making it available to all.

Leadership is clearly an issue. We see a lot of speakers at Trump’s daily press briefings, but I challenge you to tell me who is responsible for what. Imagine a briefing in which the president said: “My friends, as you know, we face three huge overlapping needs as we meet and beat the COVID-19 challenge. I will now let the leader of each of these three elements update you on progress and challenges.”

Imagine also an organization chart that would show each of the key people, their primary responsibility, and to whom each reports. It would have the president at the top with three people immediately below.

We are seeing a lot of action, but action is not a substitute for strategy. Innovation is needed to get us to the other side of the COVID-19 challenge as quickly as possible.



Thomas D. Kuczmarski is the president of Kuczmarski Innovation, an international innovation consultancy based in Chicago.


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