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How the White House Followed the Science to Enable a Quick Vaccine

Thought Leader: Joseph Grogan
December 11, 2020
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As new vaccines enter the market, it is hard to think of a public program that has yielded a larger return so quickly for our country and the world than President Donald Trump‘s Operation Warp Speed. The program designed to speed up COVID vaccine development has been a historic success of public-private partnership, a victory for deregulation and a clear example of a government following the science. Costly blanket shutdowns and other behavioral forms of virus mitigation have not been able to produce long-run reductions in COVID damage across the globe, but R&D and medical innovation is again turning out to be a cheaper alternative to prevent disease than behavioral change.

Both of us can confirm that, in its ongoing work, the White House was already in the proper mindset to enact Warp Speed’s approach of deregulation and private partnerships at the time the disease hit our shores. Much attention had been paid to the value of deregulating the Food and Drug Administration as part of the president’s overall deregulatory agenda, long before COVID hit us. This was partly fueled by Chicago economics-style thinking in the White House, including appropriate skepticism of excessive health care regulation. Generic entry and competition were freed up to contribute to the first decline in drug prices in 50 years in 2019. Right-to-try legislation was passed allowing patients not to be bound by one-size-fits all FDA decisions. In addition, a 2019 report by the Council of Economic Advisers recommended public-private partnerships to enhance vaccine development in a pandemic. The report prompted an immediate executive order a week later that turned out to be a great intellectual foundation for the Domestic Policy Council’s push for accelerated development of a COVID vaccine. When COVID-19 emerged, the White House was ready and expeditiously applied the report’s deregulatory and fiscal lessons to streamline FDA approval for vaccines and their parallel manufacturing on a large scale.

In collaboration with the White House, the FDA, beaten up by early missteps on COVID testing deployment, vowed to cut regulatory red tape on the vaccine and therapeutic side. It was FDA staff who coined the term “Operation Warp Speed” and rallied to reach out to vaccine developers as well as private-sector partners who could help bring manufacturing and component capacity online faster. Rather than waiting for companies to contact them, they proactively reached out so leadership and technical experts all received information at the same time, cutting down on bureaucratic hurdles and delays.

Central to the fiscal effort of Warp Speed was to have government funds follow private-sector science by funding private production of vaccines parallel to approval or awarding future purchase commitments. The president’s initiative was successful because it used public funds to fuel the superior performance of private-sector science. Had we waited for the government to lead the development of a vaccine, chances are we would hardly be closer now than we were 11 months ago when the pandemic hit us. It seems difficult to imagine that many previous presidents would have turned so rapidly to the private sector. A more likely scenario may have been a repeat of the mistakes that led to the COVID testing rollout, which relied on our government agencies to develop tests—a dysfunctional system the president inherited before quickly directing the private sector to take over.

For both the deregulatory and fiscal response of Warp Speed, the president, for all the criticism he received, was in many meetings relentlessly pressuring bureaucracies—and the political appointees who head them—to move faster. His private-sector mindset—making demands and setting timelines to fit the urgent need of consumers rather than government agencies—is now paying off.

Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump signed an executive at the Operation Warp Speed Vaccine Summit on December 08, 2020 in Washington, DC.TASOS KATOPODIS/GETTY


Many have claimed that the president did not take the COVID threat seriously. But his actions and frustration with the agencies’ slowness dispel this narrative.

First, the president enacted the most drastic infection control measure to date when the disease arrived: the Chinese travel ban, a rare example of a government response to a disease outbreak coming faster than the private sector response. Second, he oversaw the biggest mobilization of the private sector since WWII to raise hospital capacity. Third, he oversaw the most severe government-induced reduction of economic activity in history. Fourth, he enabled the CARES Act, which was the largest stimulus or liquidity measure ever passed, working with the Federal Reserve to extend liquidity further. Add that to directing the fastest therapeutics and vaccine development in history through Warp Speed, and one may ask, which of these historic actions failed to take the virus seriously?

The societal rate of return on Warp Speed will be enormous, both because the benefits are so large and because they are arriving so quickly. The quick marketing of a successful vaccine that this roughly $10 billion program has enabled has had returns estimated around $1.8 trillion to the U.S. alone, making the world return multiples higher. A minuscule fraction of this value will be paid back to the people who generated it, in keeping with a general pattern for the life science industry’s life-extending innovations. If anything, COVID has made it abundantly clear that rewarding people who are in the business of curing or limiting dreadful diseases of others is a good thing.

The success of Warp Speed is a clear illustration that deregulation of many bureaucracies within the Department of Health and Human Services would benefit patients suffering from diseases other than COVID. Patient-disease groups are often the loudest ones arguing for a more dynamic health care bureaucracy. However, elected representatives trying to correct this problem are often told to not let “politics” interfere with out-of-touch health bureaucrats who do not understand the full consequences of their actions.

But Warp Speed proves that scientific barriers are often not the challenge in delivering medicines safely and quickly. Bureaucracies, when properly motivated and staffed with good people, can respond and cut many unneeded steps out of the normal process. Even those most critical of deregulation are now asking to be first in line for the vaccines such deregulation enabled. While the staff at FDA has been working harder to get us out of the pandemic than they can be expected to in normal times, their efforts in working more collaboratively with industry have shown the way for a potentially bright deregulated future for America’s patients.

Joseph Grogan served as an Assistant to the President as Director of the Domestic Policy Council 2019-20. Tomas J. Philipson is a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and served as a member and acting chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers 2017-2020.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.

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