Pfizer released photo: ID 201690225 © Mariusz Burcz |

V-day this week marked a momentous milestone in the global fight against the pandemic, and after the year we’ve had, it’s good to see the UK at the forefront of progress in something at least.

In fact Britain’s path to be the first to roll out a COVID vaccination programme contains 5 lessons in agile working which maintained positive momentum, many of which are prevalent in digital product development but are less common in wider business even in the year 2020:


The main reason why the UK’s regulator, the MHRA, was able to give the vaccine the green light was because the developers Pfizer/BioNTech had been submitting data for the regulator for ‘rolling review‘ since October. The partnership’s process appears to have been made as transparent as possible in order to help the regulator move with them as fast as possible, and they did. It reminds me of the our basic premise on, which was to open source our news gathering to tell audiences what we knew, as soon as we knew it. Transparency builds trust.

Iterative A/B Testing

This goes hand-in-hand with (1.), but it’s amazing that it doesn’t happen more, either in software or any other business process. The Pfizer/BioNTech team launched 4 variants simultaneously to find a lead candidate. Added to which there are a whole series of trials, increasing in scale, leading up to a roll-out, but confidence to move on to the next step is given by the results of the previous phase. Put these two approaches together, and the team was able to compress years of development into months. Nowadays software developers right the test scripts for their new feature at the same time as they build the feature itself. It means that most code has already been tested before the launch of the minimum viable product. The best practice in user experience, digital marketing campaigns and even content creation at scale is to test variants of designs, words, and pictures to optimise click-through and engagement.

Keep showing value – perfect is the enemy of good

Often easier to say than to practice, even more so in vaccines I can imagine. But throughout the development of the vaccine it was obvious that the team were continually balancing risks & benefits, and current pandemic conditions add an extra layer of influence on that balance. Even the news that 2 nurses had displayed allergic reactions after vaccination was seen through that same lens. One response could have been to halt the roll-out completely, but in fact the UK regulator updated its advice with a warning to people with a history of allergic reactions, with the programme continuing. It’s more important to release the benefit to the vast majority, while working through the edge cases.

Collaboration & partnership

It’s clear that getting the vaccine this far so fast would not happened without working together. While Pfizer know about vaccines, BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA platform was a crucial accelerator to building multiple vaccine candidates. But the collaboration is far more broad than that: supply chain, regulators, and even some competitors who shared vital in the field of serology. Pfizer said this was ‘collaboration as unprecedented levels’. I’ve worked in one or two places which were case studies in the opposite of collaboration. Imagine if one of these partners had held back because they wanted all the glory for themselves? We wouldn’t be vaccinating this year. Together is better.

Parallel processes

Long before the vaccine had been approved, Pfizer had already manufactured 20 million doses, work was well underway to implement the just-in-time supply chain, and as already mentioned, the UK regulator was able to start its own process as the drug manufacturer released test data on a rolling basis. Governments around the globe signed deals to pre-order batches of vaccines back in July. While the US, for example, secured 100million doses in advance in July, it’s not clear where they were able to analyse the Pfizer/BioNtech test data iteratively, as in the UK. That’s raised some tough questions from the White House.

Much of my consulting work is about importing lessons and paradigms of change from my background in digital media into adjacent sectors. The journey of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine shows all the symptoms of an accelerated non-linear process, and can be considered a shot-in-arm for all kinds of businesses.

Julian March


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