Even in a dire global crisis, human greed, ego and a misguided sense of innovation clog up our collective senses.

Joe Biden stunned the world when he proposed to waive intellectual property rights around vaccines, making them more available around the world. Amid the urgency to control waves of recurring pandemic infections, the global search for a vaccine has raised not only questions around how to successfully collaborate across countries and institutions, but also how to innovate responsibly.

With the pandemic, we have had a unique opportunity to collectively solve a problem that concerns all of humanity. Instead of pooling all our discoveries into one to ensure that the vaccine produced is as effective as possible for everyone, it seems many institutions have embarked on the journey on their own. But why? 

Generally, in the tradition of the political economist Joseph Schumpeter, innovation is defined as the means for a company to generate value and profit through a new product. Traditionally, therefore, that outcome would equate to financial gain for a business.

However, responsible innovation does not focus only on the financial aspects. Even though it does not exclude profit, this ideology looks at innovation from a different angle: one aimed at the common good, considering environmental, political, and human factors.

When we remind ourselves of our collective social responsibility, is the proposal by the American president really so shocking? Not really.

By waiving intellectual property on patents, enough doses of vaccines will be easier to produce and distribute to everyone, everywhere in the world, and in a minimum timeframe. This ‘responsible innovation’ could make the history books for centuries.

Contrary to traditional innovation—which is meant to create value—the glory of the success in responsible innovation becomes collective, not individual.

The vaccine development landscape

Some may be surprised to know that, apart from products from Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna, most of the current COVID-19 vaccines that are ‘authorized for emergency use’ are not from Europe—a region that traditionally had been a front runner in pharmaceutical innovation.

One reason for this is investment into research and development (R&D) across the region, with R&D spending falling in many countries. In fact, technological sovereignty is only possible today through European agreements, because each member state is too small in terms of investment.

China, on the other hand, has understood this imperative. In 2019, 43.4% of patents filed were Chinese, while the European Union accounted for only 5.6%. China’s R&D investments are also nearly seven times higher than those of France, but with a comparable value as a percentage of GDP.

Zooming into France, the country has seen a stagnation of its share of wealth allocated to R&D, which remains at around 2%, whereas the OECD average is on the rise and already above 2%. Not just that, but the country’s expenses were also below the target set by the European Union in the ‘Europe 2020’ strategy, which requires R&D expenditure to hit 3% of GDP.

Now, if the global past is the United States and the future is China, this raises questions about Europe’s place. To keep up, European nations have to look at how they can increase investments to continue innovating. If countries or institutions are unable to do this on their own, they could consider partnerships for the greater good. For example, education institutions and research organizations could merge into a single entity that is focused on R&D.

Not to mention, waiving intellectual property rights around vaccines and encouraging collaborations across countries and institutions can also increase the total investment that it is going into the R&D around fighting the virus.

Quelling egos for the common good

We need to remember that humans and society do not act in a rational way. We are animals with egos and emotions, and unfortunately those are characteristics that we easily forget, or choose not to think about. Elon Musk, for example, is not behaving in a way that is simply for the money. Rather, he is playing the role of the ‘hero’.

Thousands of years ago ancient philosophers were already reflecting deeply about our need for social recognition, so this is not entirely new. We all have our passions, we all seek glory, and in part, we do require these reflexes to maintain social cohesion. Plato showed it when he wrote The Republic in 375 B.C.

However, in order to make responsible decisions, we need to find a way of pushing our egos aside. For the ancients, this was necessary to do on a daily basis. But today, we are too often looking for glory, social recognition, and success. Twenty years ago, it was the success of creating a company or obtaining a degree: nowadays a few thousands ‘likes’ on Instagram can have the same effect.

The question of ego may seem trivial, but what has been happening with the COVID-19 vaccines, for a large part, does come down to our inability as humans to go beyond our egos.

During the pandemic there has been no question of putting our differences aside and pooling resources around the globe to work on a solution together. However, this has been selective and there is plenty of room for improvement. While we do have vaccines today, we are not sending it out equally across the world.

We must remember that we are facing a common problem and are striving for the same goal. Why not go beyond our egos to share the solution?