Humanity Supersedes Technology with Covid Vaccines

Lessons from the most important tech adoption of our century: the COVID-19 vaccine

By Cameron Turner, VP Data Science and Karl Hampson CTO AI & Data, Kin+Carta

In 2020, the lack of predictability has become predictable. The abnormal has become normal. “2020” as a moniker is itself ironic. The American Optometric Association (AOA) defines 20/20 vision as “to see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at that distance”. As we enter a new phase of lockdowns globally, this is a year when very little can be known about next week let alone next month.

However, the continuous state of “predictable unpredictability” has spurred us to think, reflect, and perhaps match patterns between this generational crisis and our day-to-day work. Whatever solutions are to be delivered for the global pandemic; they will draw on what we’ve learned in other spheres of our lives.

Having spent our careers in the business of prediction (applied AI), and watching as the global distribution of vaccines unfold, several patterns emerge that follow the same contours of any technology release. The audacious endeavor of vaccinating a majority of the world’s 7.8B people bear some similarities to the global adoption of other technologies such as mobile phones, Microsoft Windows, or Facebook.

Here we draw three parallels— global Covid-19 vaccination will represent the largest technology adoption, on a faster schedule, ever before attempted.

Lesson 1: Cultural acceptance must precede distribution

A key to technology adoption is fostering trust. In the US, the role of science has been challenged directly during Covid-19. In both of the US political parties, facts have been squelched or cherry-picked in favor of particular desired impressions as leaders and media outlets seek to reduce complex topics to digestible soundbites. In turn, we lose the trust of the population.

In a September survey by Pew Research, 49% of Americans said they would “definitely or probably would not get vaccinate”. While these numbers will no doubt swing with FDA approval, it speaks to a natural distrust in new technology, one that could have unknown and unintended consequences.

In the course of studying digital transformation among consumers and the enterprise, we see a similar pattern. A default “no” to additional risk and cost is only flipped by overwhelming evidence to the contrary, often setting up a chicken-and-egg situation, where technology pilots are delayed or canceled.

Lesson 2: Logistics supersede technical merit

While Pfizer and Moderna are tied for maximum efficacy, at the storage temperature of -70c and -20c respectively, the logistics of vaccination in remote regions of the world are mind-boggling.

Too often as technologists building software for large scale distribution, we are focused on the tech vs. the people who use it. Developing hardware and software that works only in idyllic circumstances by definition limits the total addressable market. In short, the best technologies are then only available to those in the best of circumstances.

Covid-19 has taught us the importance of avoiding such assumptions and instead of putting humans first, designing technology for non-ideal scenarios where seemingly reliable broadband can glitch and where ideal working conditions can no longer be assumed. Companies with this mindset have hurtled forward, for example, Zoom’s support for intermittent connectivity/speed.

Lesson 3: There is no 100% solution

Finally, as euphoria builds over upcoming inoculations, it’s important to consider the empty part of the glass as well as the full. Even at 95% efficacy, several confounding factors prevent us from having a “champagne moment” when we flip the switch from a Covid state to a Covid-free state.

The problem here is one often seen in digital transformation: few step up to the bleeding edge in adopting new technologies when the risk of unknown outcomes is at its highest. This sets up a paradox, the higher the vaccine efficacy, the lower the required % of the population to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. In turn, each individual will ask: “If there is a risk, why not be among the minority that reaps the benefit later without the risk?”, thereby jeopardizing the required level of population inoculation.

Conclusion

The 1918 global pandemic infected about 500 million people and killed at least 50 million of the world’s 1.8 billion. 675,000 died in The United States. In the end, this pandemic ended with a fizzle — there was no single moment when the economy was “reopened”, and life continued as usual. The final slowdown in infections was driven by herd immunity at the great cost of life, plus widespread behavior change including the prevalent use of face masks.

As a technology, the vaccines entering the market in the next few months will represent possibly the most impactful technology to touch our lives. However, if vaccines are the “what”, the “how” (logistics/distribution, cultural integration, trust, and continuous research) will define the speed and benefit of its adoption.

The covid-19 vaccination deployment reminds us that technology alone cannot affect the day-to-day lives of its intended beneficiaries. Only by considering human need over technology, can we reap the promised benefits that innovation holds.

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