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A Methodology Guaranteed to Beat Covid-19

Professor Pierre Azoulay
MIT Sloan School of Management

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing people around the world to cope with much higher levels of uncertainty than most of us have ever confronted. Doubts and tradeoffs permeate our decisions related to personal health, social interactions, and livelihoods. For policymakers seeking to steer us back to social and economic stability, however, MIT Sloan Professor Pierre Azoulay says the way forward is crystal clear.

“Innovation can help societies escape the untenable choice between public and economic health,” say Azoulay and coauthor Professor Benjamin F. Jones PhD ’03 of Northwestern University in a recent editorial for Science magazine. With Covid-19-related losses in U.S. GDP running at approximately $18 billion per day, Azoulay and Jones note that accelerating the creation of a vaccine by even a single day would easily pay for itself. “Even large incremental funding to support R&D will be miniscule in scale compared to the $2.8 trillion the U.S. government is spending to compensate for the economic shutdown.”

The argument for scale and speed
In “Beat COVID-19 through innovation,” the two economists contend that a successful policy approach must broaden and accelerate breakthroughs in prevention, treatment, and infection control. Azoulay and Jones recommend that the government simultaneously fund as many as 10,000 independent avenues of research. “Even if each had only a 0.1% chance of producing an advance in prevention, treatment, or infection control,” they say, “the probability of at least five such advances would be 97%. By contrast, if efforts crowd into only a few prospects, the odds of collective failure can become overwhelming.”

A bold and fiscally justified approach includes expedited funds to support the massive R&D talent pool that currently exists in the U.S. and around the world. Principal investigators with existing public funding “should be able to receive immediate support to work on Covid-19 with minimal application burden and decisions within one week,” write Azoulay and Jones. To accelerate breakthroughs in the private sector, an R&D financing program could offer expedited loans that are forgivable based on actual levels of investment in pandemic-related innovations. Still more fiscal incentives could be created by expanding the R&D tax credits that already exist in many countries, including the U.S.

Innovating our way out of crisis
Azoulay and Jones point to the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) from the World War II era as a template for what should happen now. “A COVID-19 Defense Research Committee [CDRC] could similarly be empowered to coordinate and fund solutions to the pandemic,” they say. “This group would track R&D efforts, create a public clearinghouse documenting the avenues pursued, fund innovations and the scaling of successful advances, and streamline bureaucracy.”

The CDRC would also be responsible for increasing transparency among private-sector scientists working on Covid-19 responses. Azoulay contends that the investments of big pharmaceutical and biomedical companies often are influenced by murky notions of what competitors are developing. “The market works,” he recently told an MIT News reporter. “It’s just that it works at a cadence that is inappropriate to the particular moment that we face. And that’s a rationale for government intervention.”

In concluding their pitch for the CDRC in Science, Azoulay and Jones stress that the need for immediate breakthroughs is too important to be left to chance and that every minute lost is costing us millions. “COVID-19 presents the world with a brutal choice between economic and public health. Innovation investments are essential to avoiding that choice—yet tiny in cost compared to current economic losses and other emergency programs. Even the slight acceleration of advances will bring massive benefits.”



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