Operation Warp Speed and the ‘Creative Society’

A researcher works in a lab run by Moderna Inc. (Moderna Inc/Handout via Reuters)

Its success is a reminder there is no limit to American ingenuity when government stands alongside the people rather than in front of them.

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Its success is a reminder that there is no limit to American ingenuity when government stands alongside the people rather than in front of them.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R ecently the New York Times published an in-depth report on the success of the public-private partnership to develop a coronavirus vaccine. The program, dubbed Operation Warp Speed, devoted the resources of the U.S. government to aid private companies in the design, testing, and distribution of an effective vaccination for COVID-19. The deadline: one year after the virus’s appearance in Wuhan, China.

And it worked. If the FDA grants emergency use authorization to Pfizer in a few weeks, as is widely expected, the first shots will be administered to frontline health-care workers before New Year’s. The end of the pandemic is in sight.

Pfizer stayed somewhat aloof from Operation Warp Speed. After reporting results from its vaccine trials, a company spokesperson was quick to point out that Pfizer did not receive funding from the program. But it did call on the government a couple of times, and it agreed to sell 100 million doses of its vaccine to the United States long before clinical trials were complete. Moderna, by contrast, worked closely with the feds. “Nearly $2.5 billion in federal funds helped Moderna buy raw materials, expand its factory, and enlarge its work force by 50 percent,” according to the Times. “In return, it promised to deliver 100 million doses to the federal government.”

The government also helped with crisis management. The Times’ report highlights moments reminiscent of the 1995 hit movie Outbreak: “When Moderna discovered this summer that an air handling unit for its factory could not be delivered over a weekend because of Covid-19 limitations on interstate trucking, the major’s team [led by a Defense Department official who remains anonymous] stepped in. Warp Speed officials arranged a law enforcement escort to accompany the massive piece of equipment from the Midwest to its Massachusetts manufacturing plant.” No logistical or regulatory obstacle would stand in the way of a life-saving vaccine.

As I learned about Operation Warp Speed, I recalled two other pieces of writing. The first also appeared in the Times. In late March, six of the paper’s journalists investigated “The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to Covid-19.” They found that bureaucratic delays and mismanagement ruined the government’s ability to track the pandemic at an early stage. “As the deadly virus spread from China with ferocity across the United States between late January and early March,” they wrote, “large-scale testing of people who might have been infected did not happen — because of technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, business-as-usual bureaucracies and lack of leadership at multiple levels.”

The Centers for Disease Control insisted that it coordinate national testing and community surveillance. Disaster ensued when the CDC’s test was revealed as flawed. The FDA was no better. According to the Times, it “enforced regulations that paradoxically made it tougher for hospitals, private clinics, and companies to deploy diagnostic tests in an emergency.” The nation’s political leaders were distracted from the crisis. Or they dismissed it. In any case, government failure made this pandemic worse.

The contrast with Operation Warp Speed could not be more pronounced. Earlier this year, the command-and-control, centralized, uniform, bureaucratic-regulatory approach to policymaking was dominant. The result was the “lost month.” It exacted a horrible human toll. With Operation Warp Speed, however, government lessened regulation. Policymakers reduced bureaucracy. They embraced experimentation and decentralization. They did what public officials do best: throw money at a problem. And now we have a vaccine.

Which brings us to the second text I recalled while reading the newspaper. In 1967 Ronald Reagan delivered his first inaugural message as governor of California. The title of his remarks was “The Creative Society.” He meant to contrast his approach with the big-government methods of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Reagan’s principles were the same as always:

The path ahead is not an easy one. It demands much of those chosen to govern, but also from those who did the choosing. And let there be no mistake about this; we have come to a crossroad—a time of decision—and the path we follow turns away from any idea that government and those who serve it are omnipotent. It is a path impossible to follow unless we have faith in the collective wisdom and genius of the people. Along this path government will lead but not rule, listen but not lecture. It is the path of the Creative Society.

Reagan stressed that, “Government has a legitimate role, a most important role in taking the lead in mobilizing the full and voluntary resources of the people.” Fourteen years later, Reagan would echo this sentiment in his first inaugural address: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.”

Operation Warp Speed exemplifies the Creative Society. Its success is a reminder that there is no limit to American ingenuity when government stands alongside the people rather than in front of them. It underscores the benefits of democracy and a large and resilient private sector. It lends support to the idea that American decline is not an insurmountable condition, but the consequence of bureaucratic sclerosis and risk-averse leadership. Above all, Operation Warp Speed offers hope. Not just for an end to the pandemic. For national renewal.

And that is plenty to be thankful for.

A volunteer is injected with a vaccine as he participates in a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020.
A volunteer is injected with a vaccine as he participates in a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020.
A health worker takes plasma after a separation process from blood samples in centrifuge during a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020.
A health worker takes test tubes with plasma and blood samples from a centrifuge after a separation process during a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020.
A health worker takes plasma after a separation process from blood samples in a centrifuge during a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020.
A health worker takes test tubes with plasma and blood samples after a separation process in a centrifuge during a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020.
Test tubes for a Lundbeck coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020.
Research associate Phuong-Danh Tran of RNA medicines company Arcturus Therapeutics conducts research on a vaccine for the coronavirus at a laboratory in San Diego, Calif., March 17, 2020.
A scientist at RNA medicines company Arcturus Therapeutics research a vaccine for the novel coronavirus at a laboratory in San Diego, Calif., March 17, 2020.