The New Normal

April 27, 2020

By Andrey Zarur, CEO

This blog is adapted from a series of LinkedIn posts. To check out the original content, click here.

I was recently on a Zoom call with hundreds of young people explaining our company’s large-scale manufacturing process for a SARS-CoV2 vaccine. They all wanted to know one thing: how can we get back to the way things were? How do we get back to normal?

I turned the question back at them: Why would we want to get back to what we were doing before? Returning to a previous state assumes that it was better. But transitioning a previous state in history presents us an opportunity to arrive at an even better place.

Our previous normality wasn’t that good. The threat of a global pandemic was largely ignored for decades. The dedication, compassion, and tenacity of front-line healthcare workers and first responders was substantially underappreciated. We ignored the relentless damage we are doing to our planet. And inequality was rampant. Why would we want to go back to normal? We have a unique opportunity to rise from the damaging pandemic and form stronger human bonds, because the human race tends to come together in the darkest of times.

So I ask: can we get rid of COVID-19 but refuse to go back to normal? Can we transform the pain many are enduring into positive energy to drive global change? Can we achieve sustainable development in our farmlands and cities, with equitable access to health, education and sustenance?

The young people with whom I shared my views are understandably scared about how not-normal their lives are right now. But it is really up to them to decide what shape this new world of ours takes. Our generation clearly screwed up by not being prepared for the crisis, and by not taking care of those who are most vulnerable.

So what is this “new normal?” It can be structured around three rules:

Science rules
We are in this mess because our leaders ignored science. History is littered with examples of leaders putting politics ahead of scientific facts. The results, without exception, have been catastrophic.

Many comparisons have been made between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Death pandemic, which killed between 25-200 million people around the year 1350. Historical records show that the scientists of the time understood that isolation and hygiene were critical to arrest the spread of the disease. But they were not only ignored by the people in charge; they were ridiculed, and in fact persecuted, for stating the facts. We cannot keep ignoring scientific facts and expect a different outcome.

The three big areas of focus should be global climate change, the systematic extinction of species (principally insects) due to human activity, and the threat of a global pandemic. The first two, have been going on for a while the latter just hit us like a truck.

It is critical for people to use their right to vote to make sure leaders are listening to science and standing up for what is right rather than giving in to special interests. And we need to make our education systems more inclusive so everyday people are able to understand these facts and become less susceptible to political discourse.

Prepare for the next big one
Despite the tremendous pain, suffering and death this pandemic has caused, it could have been a LOT worse. It could have been a different type of virus. This pandemic was caused by a coronavirus and not an influenza virus, which is extraordinarily fortunate. A coronavirus can only mutate through a process called drift, which is naturally slow. Influenza viruses, on the other hand, can also mutate through a process called recombination, which can mutate much faster as the virus goes through populations.

We are fortunate this virus seems to cause mild symptoms in most people who acquire it, and people who are severely affected generally have other underlying health conditions. If a different type of virus that can cause serious illness to broad swaths of the population were to achieve similar levels of infectivity and transmission, it would rapidly overwhelm health, cause greater human loss, and an even greater disruption in economic and social activities than what COVID-19 is causing. Being ready for the big one means making significant global investments in vaccine technology, detection and tracking, and robust emergency systems. These are not popular investments to make. But there is simply no choice. We must be ready for the next one.

Want and consume less
Our systems of capital rely on people buying lots of crap they don’t need. In fact, the 25-30% drop in market performance over the last two months is largely driven by people not buying stuff they don’t need.

It’s not just consumer goods; it also applies to services and investment activities. In pharma, we have invested about 100x in “better therapies” against diseases for which we already have some form of treatment (diabetes, cardiovascular, autoimmune diseases) vs. anti-infectives and vaccines. That’s because we can charge more for a new diabetes pill than for a flu vaccine.

As a society, we need to recalibrate “must haves” vs. “nice to haves.” A universal influenza vaccine is a MUST HAVE. Another anti-acid pill is a nice to have. A more robust medical school system, one where kids can learn to be doctors and nurses for free, is a MUST HAVE. A new stadium for the Las Vegas Raiders is a nice to have.

This virus has showed us one thing: We are all the same. This thing will change the lives of 99% of people in this planet. We have to acknowledge that every decision we make in this hyper connected world will affect all of us. If we throw food out, it will cause someone else to starve. If I give antibiotics to our pigs, it will cause resistance elsewhere in the planet. If I overspray my crops, it will cause a bug to become a plague in my neighbor’s field.

These kids that I’m supposed to talk to already know this. And will probably be bored, because at the end, I’m just saying what needs to be done. I’m not saying how we are actually going to do it. That’s up to all of us to figure out together.