Why Aren't We Celebrating Operation Warp Speed?

Partisanship shouldn't prevent us from recognizing our own achievements.

About half of all U.S. adults have now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. While the pandemic is far from over, our rapid pace of vaccination — only a handful of countries are vaccinating faster than we are — ensures that we’ll start to see fewer and fewer deaths to this plague.

A year ago, it wasn’t even clear that we’d have a vaccination at this point. When President Trump predicted last year that we could have a vaccine by the end of the year, he was met with a lot of scorn and ridicule. But we shouldn’t be so hard on the medical experts who informed us that a vaccine was 18 months to 2 years away from delivery.

We’ve really never made such a vaccine so quickly. One of the big reasons we were able to do it is Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a massive government investment that was initiated in the spring of 2020. When Trump first announced OWS in May of 2020, this is how it was covered in Science:

Conventional wisdom is that a vaccine for COVID-19 is at least 1 year away, but the organizers of a U.S. government push called Operation Warp Speed have little use for conventional wisdom. The project, vaguely described to date but likely to be formally announced by the White House in the coming days, will pick a diverse set of vaccine candidates and pour essentially limitless resources into unprecedented comparative studies in animals, fast-tracked human trials, and manufacturing. Eschewing international cooperation—and any vaccine candidates from China—it hopes to have 300 million doses by January 2021 of a proven product, reserved for Americans.

Those and other details, spelled out for Science by a government official involved with Warp Speed, have unsettled some vaccine scientists and public health experts. They’re skeptical about the timeline and hope Warp Speed will complement, rather than compete with, ongoing COVID-19 vaccine efforts, including one announced last month by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The federal government’s unprecedented investment in vaccine candidates trumped conventional wisdom and the skeptics, producing what is probably the biggest scientific achievement of the 21st century. Remarkably, the COVID-19 vaccines may be pioneering novel technology that could be used to power other vaccines that could finally protect us against some of the most stubborn viruses, like HIV.

We should be looking at OWS like we do the Apollo Program or the global campaign that wiped out smallpox. Yet we’ve seen very few victory laps, let alone reflection on one of the most successful government interventions in living memory.

If you do a search of the White House website, you’ll find just three mentions of “Operation Warp Speed,” all of them from press conferences where reporters, not White House staff, brought up the initiative. Here’s an example, with a reporter querying White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about it:

Q    And certainly, that’s on distribution and (inaudible).  But on the development of vaccines, it was Operation Warp Speed that was invented, executed, initiated under the former President.  So, in the spirit of bipartisanship and unity last night — as opposed to the first comments, which spoke about the denials in the first days, weeks, and months — why not just say, “With credit to the previous administration and the former President for putting us in this position, we are glad that we have been able to move it forward”? 

MS. PSAKI:  That is an excellent recommendation as a speechwriter, but we had — the President has spoken to it in the past.  He has applauded the work of medical experts and scientists and the prior administration.  And what the purpose of last night’s speech was, was to give an update on what his administration has been doing, what he has done since he took out he took office, the progress that’s been made, what the work is ahead; provide a light at the end of the tunnel; and ask Americans to engage in the process so — and do what’s needed to be done so we can get to those July 4th barbecues.

Psaki doesn’t exactly seem thrilled to tout it.

If you search the Health and Human Services website, you’ll similarly find very little information on OWS — mostly you’ll just see old press releases from the previous administration.

Likely as part of routine archiving when there is a change in administration, the OWS page put up by the Trump administration, which offers a comprehensive fact sheet and timeline that lays out how the government administered the initiative, is no longer on the website. You can still access this page through the Wayback Machine here (at the very bottom you’ll see the words “Content last reviewed on December 14, 2020.”)*

We shouldn’t be memory holing the government program that helped save the planet from a wicked disease.

Maybe partisanship is responsible. Democrats probably don’t want to admit that the Trump administration did something very right.

Or maybe American pessimism is the reason OWS isn’t a point of national pride. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, pride in America has been declining for years. Telling ourselves that everything is terrible at all times might just be a habit at this point.

Whatever the reason, we’re self-sabotaging if we can’t admit our own achievements. OWS was a man-made miracle, one that will save millions of lives. We should embrace it and stop doubting our ability to move mountains when we put our minds together to tackle big problems.

*UPDATE: I spoke to Mark Graham, Director at the WayBackMachine, and he suggested that these sort of changes are routine when there’s a new administration. Still, the older page offers a useful rundown, and it may be advisable for the new administration to crib from it when communicating about the initiative going forward.