Following the Futures Forum on Preparedness, Schmidt Futures committed to support working groups to carry on the forum’s focus on interdisciplinary responses to COVID-19 and help translate the forum’s learnings and discussions into change in the world. Two working groups are forming to undertake this work throughout 2021. 

The Vaccine Safety and Confidence-Building Working Group will be led by the Center for Pandemic Research at Columbia University. The Learning and Accountability Working Group will be led by the Center for Global Development. Read more about each working group below and ways to get involved.

Vaccine Safety and Confidence-Building Working Group

Vaccine development and deployment depends on safety and efficacy data. Data come from both development trials and observations as vaccines are administered to the public. They help both manufacturers to tweak vaccines over time and help build trust among the public that the vaccine is safe. 

Today, vaccine data collection methods remain passive and analogue even as we live in a digital world. Thanks to the widespread use of cell phones around the world, real-time data collection could allow for rapid and continuous monitoring of vaccine deployment and uptake. The need for this type of real-time data is especially important when it comes to uptake of the new COVID-19 vaccines—particularly in the developing world. The record development times of COVID-19 vaccines are remarkable scientific accomplishments, but they have also meant there is more public reluctance to get the vaccines because there is less safety data from shorter trial periods. Robust systems to collect and distribute data on vaccine rollout and safety over the coming months and years are essential to building confidence in a transparent process and to maximizing uptake around the world.

The Vaccine Safety and Confidence-Building Working Group (VacSafe WG) will catalyze and support projects around vaccine safety data in Africa that can help create scalable, real-time data collection and usage--a crucial priority if COVID-19 is to be vanquished on the continent that may be the last to reach herd immunity via vaccine campaigns. To be successful, such projects will require large amounts of public, institutional, or corporate funding. VacSafe WG will help surface and support projects with the potential to scale through seed funding that can be leveraged for additional support.

To begin, VacSafe WG intends to establish pilot sites in one or two African countries that have a degree of cultural and linguistic diversity sufficiently complex to construct a research model robust enough to use in other settings on the continent. This will potentially offer a unique possibility to replicate findings across African states following an initial proof of concept trial. 

VacSafe WG will also work to convene regular public seminars to share information and best practice innovations with regard to vaccine safety monitoring systems.

This working group will be based at Columbia University’s Center for Pandemic Research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, working in collaboration with the Program in Vaccine Education at its (Columbia’s) medical school the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons; and the Medical Research Council Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (VIDA) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Learning and Accountability Working Group

As Dr. Philip Zelikow discussed at the Futures Forum on Preparedness in his keynote on a COVID-19 Commission and in the following session on learning and accountability, gathering and implementing the lessons of the pandemic is essential to responding to future pandemics. First and foremost, learning what we can do differently in a future health emergency will save lives and money. It will also ensure greater social and political cohesion by creating a space for leaders and the public to mark the human and economic costs of COVID-19 and understand what was avoidable and unavoidable in terms of its consequences.

Unlike the rapid response to COVID-19, the world has a chance to give some forethought to how to best learn from the pandemic. National and international organizations as well as local governments and organizations involved in the response do not need to build their learning and accountability efforts as they deploy them. Instead, they can be strategic about how to develop effective learning bodies as well establish a thoughtful framework for how each effort-—whether local, national, or international-—can learn from one another and in so doing build a stronger base of collective knowledge.

The Learning and Accountability Working Group will help lay the groundwork for post-COVID learning initiatives around the world. There are several uncertainties around what global assessments can and should look like. For instance, many less developed countries lack a system for post-disaster analysis—yet these are some of the countries most impacted by the pandemic. Additionally, there are questions around what sort of disciplines and kinds of experts should be represented on a COVID-19 review commission given the all-encompassing nature of the pandemic impacts and responses. There is also uncertainty around how national and international assessments of the pandemic can build off of and complement one another. Because the pandemic has been a global phenomenon impacted by actions in the international system and by other nations, national teams should tie in the insights of international reviews to their nation-specific reviews as well as to other national reviews to consider the lessons from other countries and the international system as they evaluate the successes and failures of their own response. But, how should national and international bodies go about this integrated analysis?

These are the sort of questions and uncertainties the Learning and Accountability Working Group will explore and assess. The global process of learning from COVID-19 will likely take years, so this working group will not aim to come to definitive conclusions. Rather, it will take the opportunity early in the learning process to begin asking the big picture questions to help frame productive modes of inquiry and assessment for this historic global tragedy. Possible outcomes include building a Learning and Accountability “Starter Kit” to help countries make design choices about their own reviews and establishing channels for connectivity among international, national, and local learning efforts.

The Center for Global Development will lead this working group.

Get Involved

Schmidt Futures will continue to provide updates as these working groups convene throughout 2021. Sign up to receive future communications about the working groups’ progress and get involved in their efforts.

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