The Mythical Man Month Meets Coronavirus

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 in general and that there’s a disappointing and dangerous lack of understanding on both sides.

It is hard not to argue the benefits of the polio vaccine or the smallpox vaccine. These diseases, which ravaged humanity for countless decades, have been all but eradicated by their respective vaccines. And there are many other vaccine success stories as well.

But all of these were developed over years, not months. I am genuinely concerned that the general public’s shallow understanding of statistics and biology is encouraging a hasty solution that might leave a long trail of carnage to clean up.

Biology isn’t physics, or even chemistry. Universal and repeatable results are much more difficult to obtain in complex biological systems.

I think it is risky to conflate the merits of every vaccine, much like it is risky to conflate the merits of any medication. There have been many stories that appear to link health issues with vaccines. To dismiss every one of those stories as anomalies that must have causes other than the vaccines reeks of the same blind faith in science that often leads to ghastly consequences that baffle future generations. The scientific method applied to biology is not infallible. Just search for ‘birth defects’ and ‘drugs’ and you’ll find endless reading material.

My point isn’t to argue against or for the merits of vaccines. Humanity needs a vaccine against COVID-19 if we are ever to return to what we considered ‘normal’ just three months ago. But for vaccines to work, you have to vaccinate the vast majority of the population. Therefore, whatever we create must not only be effective, but it can’t have any serious side effects that not only outweigh the risks of COVID-19, but also apply to the vast majority of the population.

How in the hell do we test for that when side effects often don’t present immediately or may have multiple contributing factors?

Our own history with recent miracle medications gone awry tells me to be cautious, lest we find ourselves trading one brand of hell for another.

Perhaps this time it is different. Or maybe war is a more appropriate metaphor given the devastating consequences that COVID-19 has had on our economy and way of life. Already, our government has spent more money (excuse me, borrowed more money) than it does in a conventional war. And with war, there are casualties—on both sides. Perhaps this time we must accept various casualties for the greater good.

But let’s at least not disrespect those whose experiences with various vaccines in the past haven’t been as unilaterally positive as the scientific community wants you to believe. As long as their concerns are expressed in a respectful manner, they deserve our consideration, regardless of how we must proceed with our fast-tracked vaccines.

Human bodies are not mere mechanical machines. What we do, think, drink, eat, and shoot into our veins matters on levels that reach far beyond the simple models taught in high school biology. There are lessons we will learn over and over again individually until we finally learn them as a species. And this may be just one more lesson.

And so to Pfizer et all, I say “Godspeed”. I’m rooting for you.

I also pray that my concerns are moot.

©1996-2020 Matthew Turco