Just as coronavirus was starting out on its breakneck journey around the world in January, global leaders gathered for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.
The buzz phrase this year was unmistakable: ‘stakeholder capitalism’. The idea that business has goals beyond profit or shareholder value, that it really exists to create shared social goods that benefit the wider world, seemed to come up in almost every panel and conversation.
The test of stakeholder capitalism has come more swiftly than most anticipated, as nations have plunged their economies into deliberate recessions to contain the spread of COVID-19. Amid lockdowns and furloughs, few business models have not been turned upside down. Companies of all sizes are struggling to survive.
Many are living up to ideals forged in a more benign economic climate, by protecting jobs and continuing to pay suppliers. Others have turned to producing goods for which society has suddenly acquired a greater need: Burberry is making surgical gowns, and LMVH hand sanitiser.
Business feels, with good reason, that it is doing its bit to manage this crisis. But business and investment leaders are missing an even greater opportunity to demonstrate the social value they create. They should do their bit to resolve it too.
They should do this by helping to finance research into vaccines, treatments and testing, without which there can be no true exit from this pandemic. Science is the only route to COVID-Zero – no preventable deaths, no further lockdowns, no more disruption.
Until we have vaccines to stop transmission in its tracks, treatments to save lives and stop the sick needing intensive care, and better testing that can identify cases on a massive scale, it will be difficult if not impossible to get back to business as usual. As distancing measures are eased, we can expect further epidemic waves and further business-destroying interventions to beat them back.
Science is moving at unprecedented speed to develop different interventions that will allow us to move on. Around 115 vaccine projects are underway. A COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator is rapidly evaluating existing drugs for effectiveness against the virus. Plans are afoot to scale up manufacture of vaccines and treatments now, before we know whether or not they will work, so the world can rapidly make the billions of doses we will need.
All this work, though, is well short of the funding it needs. The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an expert group convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, estimates that an initial $8 billion is needed right now so that all the necessary research and development can get started. Tens of billions more will be needed over the coming year, to produce and procure the new medicines as soon as they’re developed.
Much of this funding will have to come from sovereign governments, and the European Commission is galvanising donors through a virtual pledging conference on 4 May.
At Wellcome, we are inviting corporations and investment funds, as well as individual business leaders with the personal resources for philanthropy, to donate to this society-wide effort through a new initiative called COVID-Zero.
It is their opportunity to advance the science without which their business models face indefinite disruption.
Since we launched COVID-Zero last week, we’ve opened discussions with business donors keen to invest millions of dollars. Mastercard and Citadel are among those who have already stepped up.
Many others have wished us well, but say they are focusing their philanthropy on hardship in their local or professional communities. This is an important and noble way for businesses to deliver social value. But they will serve their communities better still by matching these donations with support for the vaccine, treatment and testing research that will remove the threat, not just keep it at bay.
The money that businesses put in through COVID-Zero will go directly to efforts to find drugs and improve tests, to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the organisation founded at Davos three years ago to develop vaccines against epidemic threats, and to the WHO, which plays a critical part in coordinating this work and needs more resources, not politically-motivated cuts. There are few better investments any business can make today.
Those with the vision and imagination to finance this research will be able to say to their employees, to their customers, to their communities, that they did more than treat all their stakeholders well during the greatest global crisis since 1945.
They will also be able to say that they were a critical part of the solution.
Find out how you can get involved with COVID-Zero.
Mark Henderson on LinkedIn