One of the biggest accomplishments of the Trump administration — and yes, there were accomplishments — was Operation Warp Speed, the public-private effort to rapidly develop Covid vaccines.
But it’s the rare accomplishment in Washington that almost no one wants to take credit for: Democrats are loath to admit Trump did anything right, and many Republicans think — or tell their voters they think — that Covid vaccines are dangerous or the vaccines don’t matter anyway, and don’t want Trump credited for his administration’s substantial role in making them available in record time.
But, of course, the Covid vaccines were enormously good. They don’t dampen transmission enough to bring about the end of the pandemic that we all longed for, but they make you much less likely to die of it, saved millions of lives in total, and enabled life to mostly return to normalcy without mass deaths just a year after the pandemic began.
We achieved a great deal with Operation Warp Speed, including proving that the US was still capable of rising to meet a crisis. We also could have learned a great deal from Operation Warp Speed — but we mostly haven’t bothered.
Last week, David Kessler, who ran the vaccine distribution operation under the early Biden administration, left the White House, marking what Axios called the “symbolic end of Operation Warp Speed.”
Kessler’s departure barely made news, but it should have. That’s because the muted slowdown of Operation Warp Speed shows that we’re on track to forget the lessons of Covid — and be just as flat-footed when the next pandemic inevitably comes.
Warp Speed got the vaccines made faster
First, a quick point that I think doesn’t get said enough: Warp Speed deserves substantial credit for saving lives in the early pandemic. Companies making crucial parts for the vaccine have credited Warp Speed’s special authorizations with getting their power turned back on in minutes after an outage and convincing vendors to cut their production times from 75 days to 7. Negotiated partnerships for every part of the supply chain — from glass vials to syringes to packaging for shipping — enabled a rapid rollout. Even the Defense Department got involved in logistics, flying equipment and vaccines from place to place.
Many retrospectives on Warp Speed came in January and February 2021, when the vaccines had just been released but there was still widespread frustration that the shots weren’t yet available to everyone who wanted them. There were premature declarations that the operation had been a failure.
It wasn’t. By the end of April, vaccines were available in most of the country to all who wanted them. The NIH estimates that Warp Speed saved 140,000 American lives by accelerating the development and rollout of vaccines by about five months.
Afterward, there were calls for the US to continue to lead in solving the bottlenecks in global Covid vaccine distribution. That didn’t happen. There were also calls to apply all this newfound expertise and capacity toward addressing other diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, and toward preparing for the next pandemic. That also didn’t happen.
Our determination to remain slow
Immunologist Moncef Slaoui, who headed Warp Speed under the Trump administration, spent years before the pandemic advocating for a simple, cheap measure that would have made it possible to develop vaccines even faster: maintaining idle capacity so the country can respond to emergencies.
As he told Science in a 2021 interview:
“The whole concept—after we went through the flu pandemic, the Ebola outbreak, the Zika outbreak—was to say, “Listen, the problem is always the same, which is there are no manufacturing facilities sitting there idle, waiting to be used. Even if we had one, we would have trouble because we would have to stop manufacturing other vaccines, which are essential for saving people’s life. So we thought, “Why don’t we take a dedicated facility and have them work on discovering vaccines against known potential outbreak agents, one after the other?” They would become incredibly skilled and trained at going fast, discovering vaccines. The company was prepared to make available the facility and ask just for the cost of running it. Unfortunately, it didn’t fly.”
But, flush from Operation Warp Speed’s success, he was optimistic that Covid would change the US government’s disinterest in maintaining capacity for rapid vaccine development. “This pandemic is costing $23 billion a day to the U.S. economy, every single day,” he said. “Investing $300 million to $500 million a year into such a facility is peanuts and would save countless lives.”
With another two years of hindsight and Kessler’s eventual departure from the White House, Slaoui’s optimism is almost painful. That investment? Didn’t happen. Before the pandemic, some of this country’s smartest experts spent years telling us that a pandemic was coming and would be catastrophic, but that we could prepare and substantially mitigate the harms. We didn’t.
During the pandemic, we developed significant expertise in vaccine development and distribution, which we easily could have leveraged into maintaining capacity for rapid vaccine development to prevent the next pandemic. We didn’t. Given Warp Speed’s unpopularity and the increasing political divisiveness of vaccination, I’m not even sure that, if another pandemic struck, we’d attempt something like Warp Speed again.
The politics around the pandemic, and especially around vaccines, has only gotten more toxic. Earlier this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has built his national profile within the GOP around his dogged opposition to Covid-era restrictions, said he would push the state’s legislature to make permanent policies such as a ban on mask mandates and Covid vaccine mandates in schools. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Republicans — including Trump, despite his administration’s role in launching Operation Warp Speed — competing in 2024 to see who can more forcefully play down the threat of Covid and future pandemics.
I don’t want this to be purely depressing. The story of Operation Warp Speed is also one of amazing human achievement. 140,000 Americans — possibly more — are alive because teams of dedicated people worked absurd hours to get the vaccines from the lab, through trials, and to doctors’ doorsteps faster than anyone believed possible. I admire them, and I’m inspired by them. And that’s why I’m sad that we seem to be backing away from what they achieved.
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