Operation Warp Speed: A Story Yet to be Told

Operation Warp Speed was by far the most successful government program against COVID. But as of yet there is very little discussion or history of the program. As just an indication I looked for references in a bunch of pandemic books to General Perna who co-led OWS with Moncef Slaoui. Michael Lewis in The Premonition never mentions Perna. Neither does Slavitt in Preventable. Nor does Wright in The Plague Year. Nor does Gottlieb in Uncontrolled Spread. Abutaleb and Paletta in Nightmare Scenario have just two index entries for Perna basically just stating his appointment and meeting with Trump.

Yet there are many questions to be asked about OWS. Who wrote the contracts? Who chose the vaccines? Who found the money? Who ran the day to day operation? Why was the state and local rollout so slow and uneven? How was the DPA used? Who lifted the regulations? How was the FDA convinced to go fast?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I suspect when it is all written down, Richard Danzig will be seen as an important behind the scenes player in the early stages (I was involved with some meetings with him as part of the Kremer team). Grogan at the DPC seems under-recognized. Peter Marks at the FDA was likely extremely important in getting the FDA to run with the program. Marks brought people like Janet Woodcock from the FDA to OWS so you had a nominally independent group but one completely familiar with FDA policy and staff and that was probably critical. And of course Slaoui and Perna were important leaders and communicators with the private sector and the logistics group but they have yet to be seriously debriefed.

It’s also time for a revisionist account of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors. Michael Kremer and I spoke to the DPC and the CEA early on in the pandemic and argued for a program similar to what would later be called OWS. The CEA, however, was way ahead of the game. In Sept of 2019 (yes, 2019!) the CEA produced a report titled Mitigating the Impact of Pandemic Influenza through Vaccine Innovation. The report calculates the immense potential cost of a pandemic and how a private-public partnership could mitigate these costs–all of this before anyone had heard the term COVID. Nor did that happen by accident. Thomas Philipson, the CEA chair, had made his reputation in the field of economic epidemiology, incorporating incentives and behavioral analysis in epidemiological models to understand HIV and the spread of other infectious diseases. Eric Sun, another CEA economist, had also written with Philipson about the FDA and its problems. Casey Mulligan was another CEA chief economist who understand the danger of pandemics and was influenced by Sam Peltzman on the costs of FDA delay. So the CEA was well prepared for the pandemic and I suspect they gave Trump very good advice on starting Operation Warp Speed.

In short, someone deserves credit for a multi-trillion-dollar saving government program! More importantly, we know a lot about CDC and FDA failure but in order to know what we should build upon we also need to know what worked. OWS worked. We need a history of how and why.

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