By Dr. Peter Lu
To get a leg up on the coronavirus, look to nature.
Biologists often concern themselves with what they call complex adaptive systems. That’s a term that describes aggregates in nature that are more than the sum of their parts, from ecologies like forests and ant colonies to organic structures like brains and embryos.
Complex adaptive systems are fascinating because, consisting of many agents interacting with each other and the forces of nature, they evolve in unpredictable ways. Replace the trees in a forest, and the animals, the course of waterways and even the weather patterns in that forest might change, too.
In the business world, chief executives are increasingly applying the concept of complex adaptive systems to their companies. They’re understanding how choices made from the bottom to the top of the corporate ladder can wreak changes in their organizations in ways that might appear subtle at first but can balloon into critical successes or failures in the future.
The ruthlessly competitive American economy – a state of nature, one might argue – demands they consider more than just their team members’ choices, too, as they move forward. Whether they like it or not, politics, cultural trends and manmade and natural disasters can shape their destinies.
The same insights apply to America’s response to the public health emergency we’re facing today.
The coronavirus has piggybacked on the complex adaptive systems we have put in place to forge a successful society – the dense urban centers that spur innovation, air travel that has spawned a globalized world, international commerce that has lifted billions out of poverty, free public education and so on.
We must develop new complex adaptive systems to end the pandemic.
At present, the race to develop an accurate antibody test is perhaps where the most intense efforts to fight the coronavirus are likely to yield the most important advances before researchers discover a vaccine. We must think in terms of complex adaptive systems, in nature’s terms, the same way surely that the coronavirus operates, as we rollout the antibody tests that are the best tools we’ll have to ensure that people go back to work, school and normal life safely as soon as possible.
The coronavirus spreads like wildfire. Tests will have to be equally convenient to access, easy to take and quickly decipherable. They must be administered at the same pace that the virus spreads. Otherwise, our system will be slower and inferior to the threat we’re seeking to neutralize. Flexibility is the hallmark of a successful complex adaptive system in nature.
Not too specialized please
The coronavirus demands social distancing. Accordingly, we must develop the capacity to manufacture the test in the US independently. Americans must make, administer and read the tests. Complicated and undependable supply chains will slow down the testing process and, worse, compromise effectiveness. We live in an interdependent world. But, ironically and counter-intuitively, independence is one way to more capably navigate the chaos of the moment.
Most importantly, the coronavirus ignores the identity of its host. Similarly, we should favor assays that everyone can use with technologies commonly found in labs throughout the country today. Tests that require new outlays of resources will take too long to implement, defeating their purpose. The tests should fit into existing clinical networks so public health authorities can hit the ground running. Modularity is a characteristic of systems that are robust and resilient in the face of existential dangers.
It makes perfect sense that many Americans desperately want to return to normal after months in lockdown watching the economy spiral downward. But what is normal has changed. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can predict the future or exercise total control over everything. We can, however, identify the patterns in nature that got us here and will get us out.
Dr. Peter Lu is chief executive officer of Arbor Vita, an independent biotechnology company in Fremont, California that focuses on the discovery, development, and commercialization of novel proteomic-based diagnostics and therapeutics.