I just read this inspiring article from Forbes about how Pfizer is fast tracking the development and manufacturing of a vaccine for COVID- 19. Of course, they aren’t the only ones working furiously for a treatment or vaccine. And while it is hard not to applaud the leadership and the uncharacteristic cooperation among biotech companies, I see two problems—the mythical man month and the unfortunate polarization of science.
If you aren’t familiar with the term “Mythical Man Month”, let me oversimplify it this way...
You can’t cut development time in half simply by investing double the resources.
For example, if it takes 10 programmers, 12 months to complete a project, then can you add an additional 10 programmers to complete the project in six months? The argument made many decades ago was that the answer is a resounding “no”. Granted, if you are starting with a clear lack of adequate resources, then adding resources can certainly hasten the completion of any project. That’s just common sense. But at some point, adding more resources not only fails to improve productivity, but it actually hinders progress due to the increased overhead of additional communication and other common issues of scale.
And while there have been advances in project management since the concept of the Mythical Man Month was first published (for example, there’s much better software as well as great promise in Agile and Critical Chain thinking), it hasn’t eliminated cold hard reality—at some point, adding more resources halts, and then reverses progress.
So while an “all hands on deck” approach to finding a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is a sensible and appropriate approach to this pandemic, we may have to curtail our most optimistic expectations that this approach will yield a proportionate decrease in the development time.
The other part of the Coronavirus development that concerns me is that world is rapidly bifurcating on the issue of vaccines ...