How Operation Warp Speed Got Vaccines Out in Less Than a Year

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Operation Warp Speed was an unprecedented fusion of government and private industry to create a vaccine against COVID-19. What normally would take four or five years to accomplish was done in less than one.

Paul Mango, then deputy chief of staff for the Department of Health and Human Services, was there to make sure everything happened according to plan. Under President Donald Trump, Mango was the liaison to Operation Warp Speed.

Mango joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to detail how the vaccines were developed and to discuss his new book “Warp Speed: Inside the Operation That Beat COVID, the Critics, and the Odds.”

We also cover these stories:

  • Two top House Republicans say they won’t support the Senate’s new legislation restricting gun ownership.
  • Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell admits that raising interest rates could trigger a recession, but says “it is essential that we bring inflation down.”
  • President Joe Biden calls on Congress to suspend the federal gas tax for three months.

Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.

Doug Blair: My guest today is Paul Mango, former deputy chief of staff for the Department of Health and Human Services and liaison to Operation Warp Speed under President [Donald] Trump. He’s also the author of the new book “Warp Speed: Inside the Operation That Beat COVID, the Critics, and the Odds.” Available now wherever books are sold. Paul, welcome to the show.

Paul Mango: Hey, Doug, thanks for having me.

Blair: Of course. Operation Warp Speed was an unprecedented use of government resources to create a COVID-19 vaccine within a year. I think the average time to create a vaccine for a disease is somewhere in the time frame of like four to five years, but it was less than a year before we got a vaccine. How did that operation get started within the government? And then, what was your role within that operation?

Mango: Yeah, it’s a great question. As you can imagine, in early 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services was very much focused on the entire pandemic response, to include repatriating a lot of Americans from overseas, trying to get a laboratory test out to the market, following the progression of the virus, to determine some of its characteristics, like, can you spread it asymptomatically?

And we had started, even in January, collaborating with Moderna. The [National Institutes of Health] had had some work going on with Moderna beforehand, and when the virus broke out, and the DNA sequence of the virus was published on Jan. 10, the NIH and Moderna decided to use that information to start to develop a vaccine.

So there were a whole bunch of activities going on January, February, into March. And we were granting hundreds of millions of dollars to different companies to get things started.

The secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, had spent 10 years in the pharmaceutical industry, and he knew its risk thresholds, what types of financial impact something like a vaccine could have. And this was in late March.

And we learned of a contract that we established with Johnson & Johnson for $450 million. And he started asking questions like, “Well, what is that going to buy us? What is that $450 million going to buy us?” And the answers we got were unsatisfactory, because they sounded like business as usual.

So Alex Azar, really the architect of Warp Speed, said, “Whoa, we need to stop right now and do not conduct business as usual. We need to do things radically differently.” So it was his knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry that really sparked the inspiration, if you will, for Operation Warp Speed.

Blair: It sounds like there was a sort of expectation that things would go very slowly, if Secretary Azar didn’t take those steps.

Mango: Yeah. And one of the key things he recognized was we needed to start to manufacture doses of vaccines long before we knew whether we were going to have a good vaccine. Because what we wanted was, the day that the [Food and Drug Administration] said, “This is an emergency use authorization,” we want it to be shipping millions and millions of doses of vaccine. Typically, what the pharmaceutical industry does is wait until it gets approval, and then it starts manufacturing at scale.

So that was a big difference.

And we also had to set up all of the logistics, which were really the more challenging part. We had to basically engage about 50,000 outlets for these vaccines—CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, grocery stores, hospitals. We had to get them all on an electronic system. We had to work with FedEx, UPS, McKesson, all these companies, to make sure that once we had the vaccines, they could get to the American people.

You had CVS and others hiring 10, 15, 20,000 individuals before the approval of the vaccine, training them how to vaccinate persons, and then putting them out into the country. That was really the beauty of Operation Warp Speed, was doing things in parallel that used to be done in series.

Blair: Does it seem like Operation Warp Speed has left an impact on how America will respond to future events like this? Obviously, if a vaccine, on average, before Operation Warp Speed, was taking four to five years, but with Operation Warp Speed, we’re able to power it out in less than a year, does that impact how we’re going to do that in the future?

Mango: Well, hopefully, Doug. That’s actually one of the reasons I wrote the book, is because I wanted a historical record of what we did differently. And I think it’s important to note that the technology in the pharmaceutical industry had evolved from the previous best time to develop a vaccine as well.

And everyone, I think by now, has heard of the mRNA technology, which is Moderna, it’s Pfizer. That technology really permits one to develop a vaccine much more quickly than ever before, and that was critical to our success.

I think the beauty of Operation Warp Speed, and what hopefully is an enduring lesson for the government, is all of the other aspects—us really expanding manufacturing quickly, and getting equipment and raw materials and labor, and then getting the distribution channel set up. All of that, I think, are the lessons learned that the government can take away and say, “We need to do this again, even better than what we did it.”

Blair: As somebody who was there during the process, was there any resistance from inside the administration to making this program work?

Mango: No, it was actually the opposite. Once Secretary Azar conceived of this, … I was with him hours every day, we went over to the White House, and we talked to Jared Kushner, we talked to Mark Meadows, and then eventually, we went in and talked to the president. We couldn’t have had more support from them.

And I write about this in the book, but a couple months prior to the launch of Operation Warp Speed, we had to turn to the private sector to manufacture tens of thousands of ventilators. I don’t know if many Americans remember that, but New York City and other places were really short of ventilators, and companies like [General Motors Co.] and Ford converted their lines over very quickly to manufacture these ventilators.

So within the administration, and within the context of the pandemic, we had already experienced the mobilization of U.S. industry on behalf of the American people. So when we explained this to those over there and the president, right away, they got it and said, “Let’s go.” So we had nothing but 100% support.

Blair: Absolutely. So it sounds like the president was involved with this. Is there a way that this could not have panned out? Well, I guess, what would you envision the pandemic looking like if Operation Warp Speed hadn’t gone through?

Mango: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s a number of folks that are doing research on that. The NIH actually put out a paper in the summer of 2021 saying that the pace at which we developed the vaccines prevented 140,000 American deaths.

The Commonwealth Foundation has been keeping track well beyond that. And they say it’s over 2 million right now. Over 2 million deaths prevented by the vaccines coming out faster than the normal, as you said, average four to five years.

The Council of Economic Advisers also did some research that said in the first six months of the vaccines being available, it prevented the loss of about $1.5 trillion of economic output. So measured in lives, measured in economic output, fairly substantial.

Blair: Right. One of the things that you’ve talked a bit about during this interview is the collaboration between the private and the public sector in getting these vaccines in Americans’ arms. Can you elaborate a little bit more on how that eventually became the process that Operation Warp Speed went through?

Mango: Sure. And there were actually three sets of collaborations that were very important. I’ll get to the public-private one. First was between Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Defense.

So it was a critical, what I call, joint venture where they provided an immense amount of logistical support, knowledge, experience, and contracting support. HHS just didn’t have the contracting capacity to engage the private sector.

The second kind of collaboration was between the federal government and the public health jurisdictions. There’s 64 of them. They’re states. Some cities are their own public health jurisdictions; Puerto Rico, the Solomon Islands, and so forth. And we were collaborating with them all along the way so that they would be prepared to do what they needed to do.

And then as you mentioned, Doug, the most important one was between the federal government and the private sector. And we used some very important principles during this period that guided the team. One was, “Never let the federal government’s reach exceed its grasp.” And that’s a cute way of saying, “Don’t get involved in things that you don’t know how to do.”

And then the second one we said is, “Never let the federal government engage in any activity that the private sector can do better.”

And the first one, “don’t let your reach exceed your grasp,” really was deferring to the local authorities and the local public health jurisdictions. We didn’t want to tell them how to vaccinate their citizens when they knew best how to get to them, how to get them back for their second doses, that was up to them.

And when it came to the private sector, anything that had to do with innovation, what I call, dexterity, really being able to move and change quickly, we said, “Let’s let the private sector do it.” The government brought to bear the resources, the clarity objective, the Defense Production Act, and the coordination. That’s what we did to make it happen.

Blair: It’s interesting because a lot of the time when I think a lot of people will imagine how a government program will work, the government tends to bear the brunt of the work itself. And it sounds like in Operation Warp Speed, what it was, was mostly the private sector doing what it does best, moving quickly, moving flexibly to create these vaccines while the government just provided background support.

Mango: Yeah. Exactly. So again, we had unambiguously clear set of objectives for them, which is important. There was no uncertainty as to what we wanted them to do.

We assumed a lot of the financial risk that they wouldn’t normally assume. We reoriented the supply chain to favor vaccine production over virtually anything else in the country. And because we had probably 25 or 30 private sector partners—everyone from manufacturing needles to inject the vaccines, to vials to carry the vaccines, to dry ice manufacturers to keep the storage of the vaccines under the right temperature—we played a key coordination role amongst all of them.

And they were fantastic. These are great American iconic companies. I think everyone’s heard of Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer, and Moderna, but McKesson, UPS, FedEx, CVS, Walgreens, Corning, Palantir, they were in the trenches with us 16 hours a day. They never complained. And they should be applauded for their efforts.

People ask me sometimes, “Well, Paul, weren’t you concerned that maybe they made a profit?” And I said, “Well, I hope they did.” I really hope they did because they put an enormous amount of effort—not only physical resources, but emotional resources—into this. So I think we should be very proud of our private sector here.

Blair: Yeah. Now, Paul, one of the things that we will hear a lot from critics, and you even mentioned this in the subtitle of your book, that one of the things about Operation Warp Speed was that it beat COVID, the critics, and the odds. One of the [things] single critics will say is that the Trump administration didn’t take COVID seriously, or they didn’t do a good job with handling COVID. What do you respond to that?

Mango: It’s very interesting, Doug, because as time goes on, the wisdom of the Trump administration, as it relates to COVID, emerges as much more appropriate than what we’re seeing. And let me just give you a couple of examples.

Learning loss in schools. We wanted all of our kids back in school in August of 2020. We sent out hundreds of millions of masks to these kids so that they could go back to school. We thought it was so important.

Don’t shut down the economy. What we’re learning is there’s, as you’ve read, there’s drug overdose, suicide, domestic abuse, there’s deferred cancer screenings, all these things that occur that are really public health issues, should be weighed against, are we controlling COVID?

And I think the Trump administration recognized this early. It probably had an ideological bias toward this, meaning a more balanced approach to managing COVID.

And then you had the new administration coming in, and it was bans, and it was mandates, and those types of things, and shutdowns, which are going to, unfortunately, lead to, I think, a decade worth of public health and economic problems.

Blair: Right. The other part of the subtitle that I mentioned is that it beat the odds. How were the odds stacked against this plan? Or I guess, where are you seeing that the odds weren’t in the plan’s favor that it was able to overcome?

Mango: Yeah. Believe it or not, it wasn’t the science. Moncef Slaoui, our chief scientific adviser, whom we interviewed in early April, and he joined the team shortly thereafter, assured us we’re going to have a good vaccine. That’s not the challenge.

The challenge will be manufacturing it at scale. Because he’s the most successful vaccine developer of our generation. And he said, “You can develop a good vaccine, and you can manufacture it at 5 liters. But when you expand it to manufacturing at 2,000 liters, it has a mind of its own. These are biological organisms that are temperamental.” That’s the word he used. And you just don’t know whether it’s going to work.

And we didn’t have any excess manufacturing capacity for vaccines in United States in the spring of 2020. So we had to either expand or start from scratch, 27 different facilities, raw materials, equipment, labor, the whole thing. So that was the real challenge of Operation Warp Speed, was manufacturing. It wasn’t design of and development of the vaccines.

Blair: Right. It seems like more, it was something that the private sector then was able to sort of assist with as well, as opposed to just kind of doing that. One final question for you. And I think that this is the one that probably most Americans are thinking about right now.

We are currently looking back at the pandemic. I would say, we’re not nearly in the same situation we were when Operation Warp Speed first came into effect. But the Biden administration seems to be really slow at removing a lot of these COVID restrictions, even now that, thanks to Operation Warp Speed, we are seeing vaccines become widely available.

How do you view the continuation of several of these different COVID restrictions in light of the impact from Operation Warp Speed?

Mango: Great question. And I use this metaphor of a train that has left the station. The train is being conducted by the American people and the Biden administration is sprinting to try to catch up and hop on the caboose.

The American people are done with COVID. That’s clear. That was a few months ago. Why are they holding on? I think it has a lot to do with just a bureaucratic bias for believing that the government might know more than the American people, which is completely not the truth.

We talked about learning loss. We talked about suicides. We talked about drug overdose. The American people understand there needs to be much more balance between eradicating COVID, which is a foolhardy goal, we’re never going to eradicate COVID, versus living our lives and all the other things we have to do.

And I think the administration, COVID isn’t the only issue where they tend to underreact too late. And I think that’s what’s happening now. The fact that they extended the public health emergency through Oct. 15 now, … to me, doesn’t make any sense. So I don’t know. Underreacting too late might be the theme of this administration. It wasn’t for us.

Blair: For President Trump.

That was Paul Mango, former deputy chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, and formal liaison to Operation Warp Speed under President Trump. He’s also author of the new book “Warp Speed: Inside the Operation That Beat COVID, the Critics, and the Odds.” Available now wherever books are sold.

Paul, thank you so much for your time.

Mango: Thanks for having me, Doug.

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