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Operation Warp Speed: Innovating Vaccine Development While Addressing a National Crisis

June 4, 2021

The American people were able to spend Memorial Day Weekend with loved ones in a largely reopened America because over half the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. That achievement was made possible because of decisions the Trump Administration took to accelerate vaccine development and manufacturing as well as its facilitation of initial distribution plans that prioritized at-risk communities. This whole-of-America effort was encapsulated in Operation Warp Speed (OWS), which the Trump Administration launched on May 15, 2020.

OWS represents a bold and innovative public-private partnership pioneered under the Trump Administration, led to the unprecedented emergency use authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine just 11 months after the viral genetic sequence was made available to researchers.By contrast, the conventional approach to vaccine development is sequential, allowing developers to make informed decisions about their financial risks and likelihood of success before proceeding with the next step. That approach would have meant America would not have seen a vaccine for several years, maybe even a decade.

The OWS strategy utilized a parallel rather than sequential vaccine development process whereby large up-front investments and guaranteed purchase amounts mitigated traditional financial risks. This approach addressed systemic resource gaps in vaccine development. The persistent underinvestment in infectious-disease vaccines before COVID-19 also manifested in a delayed uptake of new vaccine technology, particularly between 2010 – 2020.

OWS shattered the status quo and accomplished what many scientific experts did not think possible. The results are undeniable. OWS’s stated goal of having 300 million doses of vaccines available and deployed by mid-2021 has already been surpassed. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing that over 365,000,000 doses have been distributed and nearly 300,000,000 have been administered. The successful development of a COVID-19 vaccine under the Trump Administration and the distribution programs from two administrations in partnership with states and the private sector have together turned the tide of the pandemic in the U.S.

The lessons learned from OWS, namely strategic investments in public-private partnerships, should be applied to future pandemic preparedness plans and other pressing national challenges. OWS offers an example of how to take an existing process for developing and deploying a critical national security tool – whether a vaccine, software or other capability. Namely, it calls for making every effort to adhere to the industry standards of building a tool while meeting the time demands required by an urgent and lethal threat to Americans. The key is understanding how best to build effective public-private partnerships, supporting avenues for innovation, and identifying solutions that are most likely to save lives.

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