WASHINGTON—Operation Warp Speed, which was forged by the Trump administration to ramp up the development, production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, resembles the U.S. industrial mobilization effort during World War II, according to experts.
Because of the partnership between the government, military, and private sector, the vaccines were delivered within a seemingly impossible timeline.
Former President Donald Trump initiated the program in May 2020 with a promise to have a secure vaccine within months. Accomplishing his ambitious goal defied many experts who had warned that such a vaccine breakthrough could take years.
“The development, manufacture, and distribution of the vaccines in record time is a true miracle of science,” President Joe Biden said during his address to the nation on March 11, on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“It is one of the most extraordinary achievements any country has ever accomplished,” he said, without referring by name to Operation Warp Speed.
The media criticized the president for taking sole credit for America’s vaccine rollout and not recognizing the work of the prior administration, under which the vaccines were developed.
When asked about it the next day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the president’s remarks, saying that Biden “has applauded the work of medical experts and scientists and the prior administration” in the past.
Operation Warp Speed selected the most promising vaccine candidates and provided support for their fast development. It also used the U.S. military’s logistics capability to build a secure vaccine supply chain and handle the distribution of the vaccines.
It’s a kind of “manufacturing miracle” to produce millions of vaccines in record time, Arthur Herman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times.
“What was accomplished with Warp Speed can be done in other areas, with health care, with vaccinations for other diseases,” he said.
Herman, who calls the COVID-19 pandemic a “health care version of Pearl Harbor,” says Operation Warp Speed is a “remarkable achievement” that resembles the model of industrial mobilization during World War II.
The leaders of Operation Warp Speed, according to The New York Times, were inspired by Herman’s best-selling book “Freedom’s Forge,” an account of how American manufacturers helped the United States and its allies win the war.
The book, published in 2012, pays tribute to the U.S. business leaders, engineers, and workers who produced two-thirds of all Allied military equipment used in the war, including 86,000 tanks, 2.5 million trucks, 286,000 warplanes, and 8,800 naval ships, as well as the B-29 bomber and the atomic bomb. It also tells the story of innovative auto and electrical companies that transformed their manufacturing to produce war materials at a record pace.
Vaccine development typically begins in a research lab at a university, medical center, or small biotech company, and the entire process from research to manufacturing to distribution could take nearly six years. During the COVID-19 health crisis, however, Operation Warp Speed shifted the focus from laboratory process to industrial process and mobilized big pharmaceutical companies to develop and manufacture vaccines using a network of facilities across the country.
In addition, the program set a clear target and strict deadline similar to the wartime operation. The goal of the program was to hit 20 million vaccines by December 2020.
That helped all parties to stay focused on meeting the target and the deadline, Herman said. It also helped to speed up the FDA approval process and ease bureaucratic restrictions.
The U.S. government accelerated the vaccine timeline by investing in manufacturing while clinical trials of vaccine candidates were still underway. That’s unprecedented in drug and vaccine development, as it’s too risky to produce something that may fail in the end.
With funding from the U.S. government, manufacturing began on an industrial scale. More than 23 manufacturing facilities across the country were scaled up with support from Operation Warp Speed, according to Paul Mango, former deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during the Trump administration.
“Our job was to fund and de-risk the pharmaceutical companies,” Mango told The Epoch Times.
“We were manufacturing tens of millions of doses of vaccine before anyone had it, even in Emergency Use Authorization, and that was at our cost because the pharma companies never would have taken those risks.”
Mango, who was also a former partner at consulting firm McKinsey, was part of the team that developed the strategy for Operation Warp Speed. He said that forming a public-private partnership for industrial-scale production was the idea of then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who refused to accept “business-as-usual timelines” for vaccines.
“He’s the one who conceived of it. He came from the pharmaceutical industry, and he knew that they would never take these risks to accelerate development and manufacturing unless we stepped in,” Mango said. “We went to the president and the president said, ‘Go for it. Just let me know what you need.'”
Operation Warp Speed was launched by presidential order in May 2020. The Trump administration appointed Moncef Slaoui, a Moroccan-born scientist, as chief adviser and Army Gen. Gustave Perna as chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed.
Many experts, including Mango, call Slaoui “a great strategist.” He oversaw the development of five major novel vaccines while leading GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccines department.
After his appointment, Slaoui developed a portfolio of six vaccines that the U.S. government invested in across three different technology platforms—mRNA, viral vector, and protein subunit.
The U.S. government invested in different vaccine candidates because it wanted to have at least one safe and effective vaccine available for Americans by January of this year, Mango said.
“We knew way back in August that we had a very high probability of getting at least one good vaccine” by the end of 2020 after conducting “a very sophisticated cumulative probability analysis,” he said.
As a four-star general in charge of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, Perna oversaw the global supply chain and logistics for Operation Warp Speed.
Besides Slaoui and Perna, the operation recruited many people from government and military cadres. Herman listed Trump among the “heroes” of the operation.
“I think you can’t leave him out of this picture by any means. He saw the advantages to a fast and rapid ramp up with a military-style operation.”
Trump released a statement on March 10 saying that if his administration hadn’t acted in an expeditious manner during the pandemic, the United States wouldn’t yet have the vaccine.
“I hope everyone remembers when they’re getting the COVID-19 (often referred to as the China Virus) Vaccine, that if I wasn’t President, you wouldn’t be getting that beautiful ‘shot’ for 5 years, at best, and probably wouldn’t be getting it at all,” he said in an emailed statement.
The U.S. government partnered with U.S. companies including Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, UPS, FedEx, CVS, Walgreens, and McKesson for the operation.
While Operation Warp Speed was a remarkable achievement, according to experts, it has come under criticism due to the distribution issues at the state level. Some states vaccinated people successfully in the initial rollout, such as North Dakota, West Virginia, and South Dakota, but many states found the process challenging.
Bottlenecks at the state level prompted the Biden administration officials to complain that they had to “start from scratch” on vaccine distribution. However, getting shots into the arms of people was a state responsibility from the start, according to Herman.
“The distribution stops at the state line and then the governors and state governments take over from there,” he said.
In terms of distribution, which means shipping of vaccines, Operation Warp Speed “accomplished exactly” what it set out to do.