Warp Speed: My Inside View on a Trump Administration Triumph - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Warp Speed: My Inside View on a Trump Administration Triumph
President Donald Trump signs an executive order on COVID-19 vaccines, December 8, 2020 (Shealah Craighead/Official White House photo/Flickr)

Warp Speed: Inside the Operation That Beat COVID, the Critics, and the Odds
by Paul Mango
(Republic Book Publishers, 234 pages, $22)


On Friday, January 3, 2020, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, phoned Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and with those words, “We have a problem in China,” broke to the secretary and those of us on his immediate staff news that was about to change the entire world. Neither he, nor any other expert, knew much at that time about the characteristics of the virus that would become known formally as SARS-CoV2, but he knew enough to sense that we needed to respond, and respond quickly. The virus, which originated in Wuhan, was already showing up in other Chinese cities and likely gestating in countries that did business with China, meaning every significant economy in the world. Early indications pointed to a pathogen that could be as deadly as the one that caused the World War I–era Spanish Flu, which infected half a billion people globally in 1918–1919 and killed at least 50 million.

Thus began an odyssey of pandemic response actions, strategies, and regulatory processes that would consume the department of Health and Human Services (HHS), along with much of the administration, until inauguration day 2021. Only one of these responses, Operation Warp Speed, which delivered more safe and effective vaccines more quickly than almost all of the world’s experts thought possible, has been universally acclaimed as a resounding success. This did not happen by accident. 

Shortly after the call from Dr. Redfield, the assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS, Dr. Bob Kadlec, activated the Disaster Leadership Group to assess the healthcare system’s capacity and resilience, to determine supply chain readiness, and to initiate work on “medical countermeasures” (i.e., vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics). The administration’s initial strategy in response to a potential pandemic was to attempt to contain the virus in China, and this led initially to a screening process for anyone entering the country from Wuhan and was followed in late January by the president’s imposition of an outright travel ban from China. When the strategy of containment proved insufficient, we moved on to mitigation (e.g., social distancing, washing of hands, masking) designed to inhibit the spread of the virus in the United States. When this strategy proved insufficient, we moved on to one of effectively absorbing the surges of hospitalized COVID patients in concentrated geographies such as the tristate area around New York City. In support of this, the administration mobilized the private sector to manufacture tens of thousands of additional ventilators and millions of articles of personal protective equipment (PPE). Because of the logistical requirements associated with distributing these goods, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, was activated on March 19, 2020, as the federal government’s lead agency in the pandemic response.  

Several weeks into this series of inadequate attempts to “get out in front” of the virus, two characteristics about SARS-CoV2 came into focus and altered our perspective completely. First, that this virus was spreading asymptomatically (i.e., persons who were infected had no symptoms yet were infecting others) and second, that its clinical impact on humans was asymmetric (i.e., it would kill some within days, but cause nothing more than sniffles in others). This is when our imperative became clear: the only effective remedy to controlling this virus and its destructive impact on lives and the economy would be to develop and manufacture hundreds of millions of doses of safe and effective vaccines as quickly as possible. 

Some say we achieved success at the expense of safety. This could not be further from the truth.

At this point, the Trump administration — and the Azar team in particular — had already begun evolving what, in the end, would prove the world’s most innovative and effective response to the crisis: the record-time research, development, mass production, universal distribution, and administration of a set of highly effective vaccines against the disease. Before the year was out, the public-private partnership that we dubbed “Operation Warp Speed” was delivering two distinct COVID vaccines throughout the nation. One additional Warp Speed vaccine received approval and was in use by early 2021. 

Operation Warp Speed was the most successful emergency vaccine development and deployment effort ever, and the most successful biomedical public–private partnership in history. Internationally, China and Russia tried to match us and failed. They produced inferior inoculations. By July 2021, their hopes of scoring global propaganda were backfiring. Stories were appearing about the “collapse of Moscow and Beijing vaccine diplomacy.”

To put Warp Speed’s performance in perspective, think of when Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile. That was 1954. Today, sixty-eight years later, the record is not much changed at three minutes, forty-three seconds. If we equate today’s record mile to the previous record for vaccine development, then Warp Speed’s performance would be the equivalent of running the mile in forty-five seconds, an 80 percent improvement. 

How do we measure the value of this speed? 

In lives? A National Institutes of Health-sponsored study published in Health Affairs on August 18, 2021 asserts that the three Operation Warp Speed Vaccines saved approximately 140,000 lives during their first six months of use alone, from December 2020 until May 2021. As of this writing, each of the Warp Speed vaccines appears to be effective against some, and maybe all, variants, meaning that the variant-caused uptick in cases will translate into far fewer deaths. As of November 2021 nearly all COVID deaths (98 percent) were among the unvaccinated. 

Or in dollars? University of Chicago economists and veterans of the Trump Council of Economic Advisors Casey B. Mulligan and Tomas J. Philipson recently estimated that “accelerating the arrival of the vaccines by six months was worth $1.8 trillion to the U.S. economy — and more to the rest of the world.” Those dollars translated into thousands of stores, restaurants, and small business that could keep their doors open and, throughout the economy, to hundreds of thousands, perhaps multiple millions, of jobs saved or restored. 

Many in the media have attributed this success to some sort of unnamed “miracle”; a deus ex machina arbitrarily introduced to unravel the mysteries of vaccine development, the vagaries of biological manufacturing, and the logistical complexities of distribution. Others attribute it to good fortune. 

The core members of the Warp Speed team bristle at these suggestions of miracles and luck. They know that Operation Warp Speed was not as much a scientific miracle as it was a meticulously designed initiative. Success was the result of a deliberate strategy, exacting execution, an exceptional team that worked together exceptionally well, a unique public-private partnership — and a president’s and secretary’s remarkable leadership. It overcame media melodrama, outside political manipulation, internal squabbles, and unprecedented logistical hurdles to produce what for many outsiders was unimaginable success in the middle of a pandemic that had all but paralyzed the entire world. 

Some say we achieved success at the expense of safety. This could not be further from the truth. The minimum number of enrollees in the Warp Speed clinical trials as specified by the FDA was half again larger than normal vaccine trials. The interval of time from when the median trial participant received his second dose until the FDA would grant an emergency use authorization was extended beyond that of previous trials. All other required steps and criteria were those of normal trials. Indeed, Peter Marks, who leads the FDA’s vaccine approval unit, restructured his team and its internal processes to work around the clock to accelerate the evaluations. So while the process of evaluation was restructured not a single standard of evaluation was compromised. In fact, the standards for approval in many ways were more stringent than those used in normal evaluations. 

There were five simple keys to Operation Warp Speed’s success. First, both vaccines that reached the country before year’s end — Pfizer/BioNTech’s and Moderna’s — took advantage of genetic techniques that had been under development for more than a decade but had not previously been applied to vaccine development. Nonetheless, the Operation Warp Speed team had confidence in their potential and made substantial investments in their ultimate success. The advancements represented by the mRNA technology platform enabled vaccine design to be finished in days, not months or years, as in the past. 

The second key was performing in parallel tasks that were typically performed in series: reserving, equipping, and activating factories to fill massive orders of vaccine doses, vials, and injection supplies, developing and making specialized packaging, lining up shippers early (FedEx and UPS), as well as setting up tens of thousands of neighborhood sites for administering the shots (CVS, Walgreens, and many others) before the clinical trials revealed whether or not any vaccine would be safe and effective. The federal government assumed the financial risk associated with this in ways that would have been prohibitive for companies like Moderna.

The third was selecting vaccine candidates for investment in ways that spread our risk as a venture capitalist would over a variety of technologies and companies. We understood that some might fail, but we needed only one to be successful. Some did fail, but the successes delivered spectacular returns. 

The fourth was designing a governance structure that bypassed the slow grind of bureaucratic decision-making. We created a board comprising only the essential players from HHS, the DoD, and the White House. This board reported directly to the president. Decisions on vaccine candidate selection, resources, and distribution strategies were made in hours and days rather than weeks and months.

The fifth and last key was a leadership philosophy comprising three fundamental beliefs: first, delegate key tasks to those who possess the most knowledge and experience rather than to those who have lofty titles. This included bringing in experts from the private sector where the government lacked the talent. Second, that the impact derived from collaboration and teamwork far exceeds that derived from individual talent. Debating differences of opinion was encouraged, but undermining the integrity of teamwork was not to be tolerated. Third, rigorously prevent the federal government from engaging in any activities the private sector could perform better. This last belief led to a very unique public-private partnership. The government provided the resources, clarity of objective, and the regulatory context for success. America’s private sector brought its ingenuity and innovative spirit to the table. The result was delivering more vaccines to America, and the world, in less time than had ever been done at any time in the history of biomedicine. The federal government enabled success, America’s private sector delivered it. 

Neither the government nor industry could have done all this alone. Left to themselves government’s existing agencies could not have done it at all. In Operation Warp Speed we assembled and mobilized an unorthodox mix of government and private industry expertise and resources — and saved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives.

Designing the vaccine itself proved the easy part. The bigger hurdles were actually manufacturing it, guiding it through trials and regulatory approval, producing hundreds of millions of doses, putting them into vials, and moving the vials along with syringes and needles to places in every community in the nation where trained health workers were ready to begin administering the doses to every willing arm by the end of 2020. That was our goal. 

But smooth and efficient as it may appear in retrospect, Operation Warp Speed was not destined for inevitable success. Scientific, manufacturing, and logistical hurdles were only the start of our challenges. Operation Warp Speed had to overcome the obstacles, criticisms, and tensions that emerge when members of the media and others who are politically motivated are eager to attack and disparage any initiative undertaken by a president, when the country is in the middle of a politically motivated presidential campaign, and when humans with oversized egos are involved.

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