As part of the State of Play covid-19 research, we will conduct and publish ongoing interviews with experts and executives about the crisis and discuss pathways for business to respond. Our interview with John Voeller, a long-time State of Play friend, is the first in this series. What follows is a faithful transcript of the discussion, edited for clarity and length.
State of Play: John, thanks for joining us, can you start by giving us a little background about you?
John Voeller: I spent eight years at the White House. Six years under the Bush Administration and two years under the Obama administration and I was in what was called the Office of Science and Technology Policy – the President’s chief science advisor, if you will. The people I worked with included the guy who is today the Head of Pandemic Threat Management in Health and Human Services, Dr. Larry Kerr; Dr. Fauci who heads up the National Institute of Allergies & Disease; Dr. Francis Collins who leads the National Institute of Health in the US; Dr. Michelle Colby who headed the Laboratory of Zoonotic and Animal Diseases and was recently made the Director of National Security for USDA and finally Dr. Peter Emmanuel who headed up research at the Bioweapons Lab at Edgewood. I was also the CIO, CTO and CKO for global engineering firm, Black & Veatch, for many years.
SOP: What is different with covid-19 compared to previous coronaviruses like SARS and MERS that didn’t spread globally?
JV: Several things all working in tandem. Firstly, it doesn’t behave the same as the other coronaviruses. Secondly, in the West we didn’t spend time worrying about this. China has spent a huge amount of time and investment focusing on this the past decade given their awareness of the risks of live animal markets, particularly with respect to bats. China’s virology lab in Wuhan is world-class. Thirdly, it has spread very quickly. Almost as soon as it showed up, it was showing up across the world. It is a very contagious virus, can be active a rather long time on an open surface and appears it can spread in an aerosol.
When viruses jump from animals, they behave differently in human than they did in the animal. For this reason, it is very hard to predict how this virus will behave. Our “experts“ in this space aren’t really experts as our effort to learn and prepare has been lacking in critical ways and our knowledge isn’t nearly as good as it should be.
SOP: In the early planning at senior government levels, what was the probability placed on something like this? Have we responded to this event as anticipated?
JV: The probabilities of this are very well known, we’ve had a number of these zoonotic diseases. This is why we spent many millions of dollars creating a zoonotic specific lab here in the United States. We saw a future where this was going to become way too commonplace. So the probability has always been quite high. However, with the advances in technology allowing the manipulation of genetic code through computers, it is quite possible that this type of outbreak will happen more in the future and possibly deliberately. The most dangerous thing right now is an educated kid with a computer and a kitchen.
Unfortunately, despite setting up the zoonotic lab, we did not do the planning to plan around this research in terms of security and health across government. This is why we’ve ended up looking a bit silly, including not having enough supplies for our healthcare workers when the virus hit. Our shift to extreme ‘just in time’ has hit not just businesses but government departments and hospitals.
This can be applied across most governments. In general, government departments find it hard to plan together. Governments and businesses think of things and do the scenario planning, but things break down in the face of organisational and economic pressures As all are feeding from the same national budget so working together and planning together is not their forte.
SOP: Is there the possibility of finding a biological solution to the pandemic?
JV: Right now, the most important thing is that we don’t make any decision based on the fact that one country, one group or one company needs to have the sole solution. We’ve got a tremendous opportunity right now of having over twenty companies with different approaches to this thing that are all going against one target. That’s going to give us a chance to build a whole series of weapons that we can use in the future against this kind of stuff because it is likely going to come up more often than it ever has. We are at a unique point in history where every research effort can bring us knowledge that may not be needed now but may be golden sometime in the future. Many of the solutions we are testing are repurposed drugs developed for other reasons. The genetic knowledge and tools making this possible were not around for many past pandemics and we are now going back to these past problems and looking for solutions for them as they can come back.
However, to answer your question directly, we can look at a company called Onovio. Very small but one that took a totally different approach, not at a vaccine but as a way to neuter the virus so that it cannot reproduce. If it cannot reproduce, it cannot spread and grow. This type of genetic targeting could be used on any threat so they may have created many solutions in one new technique.
We will need every weapon we can get as a new virus could come up once or twice a year. Our economies cannot afford for this to happen for any real length of time. The biggest problem we had in the 2008 crash was that we were cowardly in mitigation efforts, we are very lucky right now that the world has decided to be braver. This time we are putting our money where our mouth is and making sure people maintain their incomes and maintain their employment. That’s really the maturation of the timeline that we’re talking about. We need to work out how to get good at doing this so the next time doesn’t have the impact of this one.
SOP: John, if you go forward three or four years, how do things look different if you are a government making decisions or a company operating?
JV: I think what is very interesting right now is that most corporations of any size in this world have focused to some degree or another on sustainability. Planning for events like covid-19 is major component of future sustainability. Many of the same rules in how you think, how you predict and the way you analyse will apply. You might also say that it is part of the resilience model, in this case more related to making your government resilient. This includes sharing information and making it open source.
The collaborative nature of companies is changing as the people working for them change. The kids who are millennials and in Generation Z have basically made it clear what they won’t work for or support. Have you heard of the term ‘nomad’? In the modern era, a nomad is a person who has decided not to work for any company. They will group up with other nomads and go into competition with companies, there are now around three million nomads around the world and have become very strong. For them, a computer is just another appendage, nothing special. I have a niece who has started over sixty companies in over forty countries. In the past you didn’t see this. Getting them involved in this sort of effort would be dramatic compared to the chaos we have seen from government and industry in this historical episode.
In the meantime, big businesses have become extremely monocultural, in terms of personality and thinking diversity. They’re almost at the point where if you’re a free thinker, there’s not a place for you. There used to be. That’s the thing that’s terrifying, companies say they want these really smart young people to help us get better and then they don’t listen. They say, ‘no, no, no – you go off and do this thing as we’ve already figured it out.’
Companies are having to figure out how to behave differently in this new situation. They will need to spend money on innovation with a very new mindset. For example, Mercedes were one of the first to invest heavily in robots but were disappointed with the returns and cut the number of robots by sixty percent and focused instead on how they integrated with people. Computers and systems just can’t deal with non-linear and complex or unexpected situations – such as health crises. The world is terribly non-linear and events like covid-19 have surfaced the worst of this.
SOP: One of the most successful countries in combating covid-19 has been South Korea, whose response was driven in large part from their experience with SARS and MERS, where for other countries the risk was discounted as it hadn’t happened to them recently. How can companies overcome this recency bias when planning for low probability, high consequence events?
JV: Companies, and people, get it in their heads that they have full view of everything that happens. A key area for leaders as a whole to improve is in how they overcome our inherent recency bias, in which we only place value on things that have happened recently or in which we have personal experience. We have diminished the idea of running simple lessons learnt processes to the point that many don’t do it at all, and if they do do it, they don’t go back and look at it for future planning. Very few companies learn from compound history in which they consider both what they did and what their competitors did.
Our most significant disease in society and corporations is delusion. We believe things work a certain way and don’t even go back to make sure. There should be a department in which their only role is to do this. Years ago, Shell Oil recognized they were continually making the same mistakes. They built the lessons learnt capability but never took the next step to make clear how these learnings could be integrated with future decisions. In a recent book on megaprojects, an expert who compiled the history of thousands of megaprojects from all over the world discovered that the entire construction industry had failed to meet the five key metrics of their success more that 50% of the time. The key delusion was that everything they planned would go as they intended. If learning was inherent and systemic, this would be impossible.
People tend to reach back to history only when things are really bad as history is the only insight you have, for example, during financial crises. If you go into any company and ask them what they do to improve or innovate, they will jump over the table to tell you all about it. Finding the person who is tasked with going back into history for the company and industry to leverage insight on what is happened will be impossible, they don’t exist. Or, you will be handed to the computer analytics person who is using automated statistical analysis that automated fitting data to equations that leave information to eliminate nonlinear problems. The delusion here is that the world is nonlinear and simplifying the problem so you can get a “solution” limits capabilities.
One of the best companies I ever dealt with that did this was Xerox Park Labs in Palo Alto, California. Xerox Park was full of some unbelievable brains. One of the things they conditioned their people to do was to make sure they could understand and leverage everything in the timeline of the topic they were dealing with, because they discovered that not only did they find new processes that had been set aside by people in past years. It actually turned out to be terribly useful. The delusion here is that we revere ‘new’ so much that anything that smacks of ‘old’, we run away from. When management of a corporation do that, they are committing suicide. Temporal suicide.
SOP: Fantastic, thanks John.
JV: My pleasure.