Covid-19, a disease that shook the world. SARS-Cov2, a virus that brought the world to its knees. The health system of the countries had collapsed, and also the economy. And everyone had been waiting for a miracle to happen, a vaccine or magic dose that could wipe this dreadful disease.
A miracle medicine might be a distant dream, but researchers could manufacture the Covid-19 vaccine in record time. In normal circumstances, the complete process of manufacturing a vaccine might take around 10-12 years and sometimes even more. But, these are not normal circumstances, and the world is facing a crisis at this scale, perhaps for the first time after the Spanish flu. The fastest vaccine developed till now was for mumps which took around four years to develop. Thanks to advancement in research and technology, today, we did not have to wait for four years, and the researchers were able to find the vaccine in a record time of 1 year. But how did they accomplish this herculean feat?
To understand this, it is necessary to understand the process for vaccination. The development cycle of a vaccine consists of 6 stages:
Exploratory stage (duration 2-4 years): synthetic or natural antigens are identified that might help to treat or prevent disease.
Pre-clinical stage (duration 1-6 years): tissue culture or animal testing is done to assess the safety of the candidate vaccine or to test its ability to produce immunity. Many candidate vaccines do not pass this stage; either they do not provoke the immune system or have severe side effects.
Clinical development: Testing on humans is done after getting approval from relevant authorities
Phase 1 (duration 1-2 years): Done on scores of people.
Phase 2 (duration 2-3 years): Done on hundreds of people.
Phase 3 (duration 2-4 years): Done on thousands of people.
Regulatory review and approval (up to 1 year): If the vaccination passes all phases of the clinical trial, the vaccine manufacturer applies for approval
Manufacturing (2-4 years): mass quantities of vaccines are developed
Quality control: Many vaccines undergo Phase 4 to ensure their safety and effectiveness and observe the long-term effects of the vaccine on humans.
So, where exactly does project management come into the picture?
The stages of vaccination development are sequential, but what if we could do it in parallel? We cannot skip any step or stage, but we can initiate multiple stages in parallel by using one of the schedule compression techniques called Fast Tracking. We cannot undermine the efforts of the researchers and scientists, but project management did play a significant role during the vaccination development process.
PMBOK defines Fast Tracking as “A schedule compression technique in which activities or phases are normally done in sequence are performed in parallel for at least a portion of their duration.”
Different stages in Fast Tracked vaccination development process
Of course, there are increased costs and risks with fast-tracking, which are far more significant in this case as human lives are at stake. E.g. there have been occasional cases of blood clotting and facial paralysis by some vaccines. Still, such cases are few, and new numbers every day show that the vaccines developed are safe and the results are promising.
Covid-19 made things possible which otherwise would have deemed a distant dream. It's not that we lack skill or resources. It's just we lacked the motivation, and the pandemic triggered both. Researchers, scientists, doctors and governments have been Agile in this pandemic, and as it is said, AGILE is not just Project Management Methodology but MINDSET. Fast Tracking combined with an Agile mindset can give us excellent results.