The Corner

Health Care

Study Success, Not Just Failure

A man receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as a booster dose at Skippack Pharmacy in Schwenksville, Pa., August 14, 2021. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

The adage about those who don’t know history being doomed to repeat it is suspect because it implies that there is nothing in the past that’s worth repeating. There certainly is plenty of bad stuff we don’t want to repeat, and knowing the past is important. But why isn’t there a saying about those who don’t know history being unable to have the good fortune of repeating it?

Operation Warp Speed was one of those things we should want to be able to repeat. Yet, as Alex Tabarrok points out today at Marginal Revolution, it’s mostly “a story yet to be told.”

“Operation Warp Speed was by far the most successful government program against COVID,” Tabarrok writes, and it’s hard to disagree. You could argue he’s actually understated in his praise. It might be one of the most successful government programs, period. The success in treating COVID is undeniable, but that may only be the start of Operation Warp Speed’s positive effects. If the seeds that government helped plant for mRNA vaccines eventually blossom into better flu vaccines and new cancer treatments, it would be the best use of 18 billion taxpayer dollars in American history. Plus, it was an exception to the rule about “temporary” government programs: Operation Warp Speed achieved its goal and was disbanded in February of this year.

While the full effects of the program remain to be seen, there’s still plenty to be learned from its successes so far. Tabarrok mentions the uncharacteristic speed with which the bureaucracy acted, the lifting of regulatory hurdles, and the nature of the public–private partnerships as subjects worthy of further study. The media, however, insist on nonstop doom and gloom in COVID coverage. “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,” Tabarrok writes.

Yuval Levin touched on this issue as well in his cover piece for the September issue of Commentary. “We will have trouble learning lessons from our pandemic experience because we live in a time of unremitting negativity about America on all sides of our culture and politics,” he writes. “All we can see is what is wrong with our country, and you can’t learn much if you aren’t willing to acknowledge successes alongside failures.”

The doomsayers will always have the upper hand in public discourse because if you don’t go along with the doom, you’re seen as dismissing people’s suffering. But ignoring the good and obsessing over the bad will only create more suffering in the future if it means we fail to learn what worked. That’s especially true if the bad news isn’t accurate. “False bad news is a very real social pollution, and a dangerous one,” wrote the economist Julian Simon. We’ve seen that social pollution time and again during the pandemic, whether it was the Provincetown outbreak-that-wasn’t or the Rolling Stone article about Oklahoma hospitals overrun by people who took veterinary-dosage ivermectin.

It seems we now have the technology and capability to mass-manufacture highly adaptable vaccines that can be deployed against many diseases and save countless lives. And, much as it may pain some of us to say it, it seems that the federal government deserves some of the credit in making that possible. The Left is hesitant to give any praise to Operation Warp Speed lest it look like praise for Donald Trump. Many on the right are hesitant, too, lest they be seen as praising big government. (Operation Warp Speed was not big government: $18 billion is a drop in the ocean of federal spending, and the payoff was in the trillions when you consider the lives saved and the resumption of economic activity.)

Everyone would be wise to put aside their partisan hang-ups and call Operation Warp Speed what it was: a success. We’d also be wise to stop letting incessantly negative media coverage tinge our view of the United States’ response to COVID. We should want to know everything about how Operation Warp Speed worked so we can implement lessons from it in other government programs and be able to repeat it when necessary in response to any future pandemics.

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