23 Mar 2020   |   Viewpoint

Viewpoint: how to negotiate global COVID-19 vaccine research collaboration

Now more than ever, international cooperation is needed to fight back against the pandemic. A protectionist approach to R&D will serve no one’s interests

Photo: KU Leuven

In the search for a vaccine against COVID-19, we have been witnessing two contradictory impulses: one collaborative, is stimulating global cooperation, the other protective, sees countries seeking to monopolise key technologies and resources.

The issue was brought into sharp relief in the recent row over rumours that the US government was attempting to acquire control of a vaccine being developed by the German biotech CureVac. The riposte from Germany was that the company would develop a vaccine for the whole world, not for an individual country.

Uniting the most brilliant brains and creativity all over the planet, not sitting apart in our corners, is evidently the faster route to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Humans have prevailed because of cooperation. Yet our focus on cooperation within groups generates tribalism, group selfishness and protectionism - and that can blunt attempts to collaborate between groups.

Attempts have been made to overcome tribalism. Research foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, reach out to the entire globe. The EU Horizon 2020 R&D programme is in theory open to the world, albeit some member states argue non-EU members should be barred from participation in certain parts of the programme, such as the European Innovation Council.

The protective impulse is very much at work in our search for a coronavirus vaccine, and in policies to cope with and fight against the crisis. Our rational selves want to see international collaboration, whereas the gut reaction is to respond in a protectionist and defensive way, claiming it’s our money, our research, our people, our interests. In the case of “me versus us”, self-interest can be served by cooperation within a group. However when faced with the moral controversy of “us versus them”, our gut instincts do not provide the answer. We get stuck in a value-destroying spiral, a zero sum game in which all lose out.

How can we avoid this trap? We should not underestimate tribalistic tendencies, nor should we judge this instinctive response too harshly. It is human and omnipresent - including in the research community, even if on a smaller scale.

Tension on a Small Scale

An example is an experience of mine, reviewing grant applications. One day after the Flemish Scientific Research Fund, Law & Criminology Scientific Panel had decided on the distribution of funds among universities in Flanders, we were left with some €350,000 that was not allocated. We could have spent the money on projects that had not made the grade. If we did not, it would flow back in the general pot, to be distributed in the next round amongst all sciences. What should we do?

After referring to our strict conflict of interest criteria, we agreed on key interests, such as investing taxpayer money in the best research, and maintaining our objectivity as a scientific panel. The dialogue heated up around the selection criteria and the framing. Were our objective selection criteria immutable, or could we deviate because some money was left? This strongly depended on framing the question correctly: are we here only for law & criminology, or do we reframe our role through the prism of allocating funds amongst all sciences? By a tight 7-6 majority we decided to let the money flow back into the general pot. This experience suggests several lessons.

First set of lessons: broaden the frame, deepen the interests, and embed the criteria in the new frame

The first step is being aware of the tribalistic tendency, naming it as such and talking about it. We acknowledged our self-interests. Broadening the framing then helped to expand what we understand to be our interests. We are not only serving law & criminology research, but the Flemish scientific community at large. Hence we decided to not allocate the money within our panel.

To stimulate global coronavirus research: create a global frame

As we learn from negotiation theory, all human tensions are here to stay. The same applies to this tension between within group selfishness and external group collaboration. And there is also good news: while you cannot resolve this tension, you can manage it, and to some extent transcend it.

Managing this tension for coronavirus global research requires a new and broader frame, matching the global scale of the pandemic. I suggest we empower the United Nations to organise and host such a global coronavirus frame. Countries must fund this effort according to the usual standards of UN contributions. We need such a frame as a constant reminder to recalibrate the local framing tendency. We need to reiterate over and over again that this problem is global, that we are in it together, and that a solution for New Jersey does not help without a solution for Düsseldorf.

Once we have installed and are adhering to this global frame, we need to explore our interests at another and deeper level. The main interest obviously is to beat the virus and to survive as a society. The key issue here is to understand that survival in Manilla depends on survival in Cannes too. We have an interest in beating the virus, not just in our own country or region, but on a global level.

But we cannot leave it at this. As Joshua Greene, researcher in moral judgment and decision-making at the Department of Psychology,  Harvard University, puts it, we cannot simply agree to be reasonable and open to compromise. That is what most politicians would say, whilst doing exactly the opposite. We must develop a clear moral compass, to guide us towards concrete answers. Once we look beyond the local frame and local interests, the criteria and standards for distributing global research money do not hang on local arguments. Only norms on the global merits are acceptable: where do we have the best potential to controlling the spread of the virus, and what type of collaboration would be most likely to get us there?

This raises the question of how to create such a common meta-moral standard, to guide us in weighing up competing tribal values and claims.

Again, leaders must genuinely admit to tribalistic protectionism in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. We prefer ‘us over them’, and have different habits, practices, values. As Greene notes, these differences create a biased perception of what is ‘true’ and what is ‘fair’. As a result, we cannot solve such moral controversy with a classic moral gut reaction. This is too complex and requires an all-encompassing meta-morality.

Within the UN Global Coronavirus Frame, we shift to analysing the controversy of where to allocate what funds to best find a vaccine, based on evidenced facts and by going all the way for the empirical work of finding out what works best in the real world. Utilitarians pose two questions: “What really matters? What is the essence of morality?”

Inspired by Greene’s concept of  ‘deep pragmatism’, what really matters, for all of us , is the experience of being happy, because no one  wants to suffer. With the universally accepted ‘golden rule’, principle of impartiality, we create a moral system that transcends the tribal moral values, in a universal moral language to solve moral controversies, on a global level.

‘Your happiness and suffering matter no more, and no less, than anyone else’s’. With this utilitarian mantra we can tame the protectionist beast, creating effective global research collaboration – and beating the coronavirus.

Prof. Dr. Alain Laurent Verbeke is Full Professor of Law & Negotiation/Mediation, KU Leuven & Harvard Law School

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