Over two years after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, it seems the end is quickly approaching. Unfortunately, the end of the pandemic appears to be the start of an endemic. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci has admitted, “we’ve only eradicated one infectious disease in man, and that’s smallpox. That’s not going to happen with this virus.”
Endemic viruses can take a variety of paths as time passes and they continue to mutate. Thankfully, Covid-19’s variations seem to be following a pattern of becoming more infectious but less harmful. How to address future variants, develop new medical goods, and provide care while we “learn to live with Covid” remains a critical question.
Admitting Covid-19 is likely endemic also raises challenging questions about the many futile attempts to stop Covid-19 from spreading by using draconian measures to curtail personal and economic freedoms. Were the costs worth it? And how much did we benefit now that Covid is unlikely to disappear?
We can extend the same skepticism and criticism to Operation Warp Speed (OWS).
As Covid-19 spread seemingly uncontrollably through the country in early 2020, it seemed the only ways to end the pandemic were through herd immunity, prolonging lockdown-like measures, or mass vaccination. Herd immunity was a deadly (literally and politically) strategy. Lockdowns and many other preventative measures provided no clear ending. But developing a vaccine for a novel virus required pathbreaking and unprecedented advancement in medical science in a short time.
Hoping to beat the odds, President Trump launched OWS on May 15th, 2020. The ambitious effort created a public-private partnership between selected drug developers allied with five federal agencies and provided a “blank check” of federal funding.
On December 11th, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use in the US. By February 2021, the US had three authorized Covid-19 vaccines. OWS was hailed as “a triumph of public health policy” and a “new model for industrial policy.”
Is it? Plenty of evidence suggests otherwise.
Pfizer, which developed the first authorized Covid-19 vaccine, purposefully used its own laboratories and equipment instead of those provided by OWS. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explained, “Our vaccine timing [and development] had nothing to do with politics.” Federal funding provided through OWS for Pfizer to develop the vaccine was about $2 billion, less than 10 percent of the company’s average annual R&D expenditures. Pfizer also refused to use OWS’s designated partner to distribute the vaccine.
As an Intelligencer article highlights, Moderna’s vaccine was fully developed on January 13, 2020—about a week before Covid-19 reached the US. Thus, as the article’s title reads, “We had the vaccine the entire time,” suggesting OWS was unnecessary to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.
After failing to become a finalist in OWS, AstraZeneca began vaccinating patients in the UK in early January 2020. Its vaccine later became one of the most popular Covid-19 vaccines globally. Further, over 100 other Covid-19 vaccines were in development while OWS was underway. Many of these were privately funded.
Considering these facts, it’s hard to give OWS significant credit for bringing us the vaccine.
Challenging and questioning OWS’s effectiveness is more critical now than ever because an endemic Covid-19 requires an innovative approach to address future variants and rising cases. Sadly, as I’ve written before, OWS is likely now preventing additional vaccines and treatments from reaching the market as Covid-19 continues to mutate.
By selecting a handful of drug producers to have expedited approval processes, other vaccine producers cannot compete by developing new products to treat newer Covid-19 variants better. Consequently, patients hoping to protect themselves against new variants continue to receive boosters (sometimes four) while newer and potentially better-suited vaccines wait idly for authorization.
The only way to prepare for endemic Covid-19 is to critically assess what went right and what went wrong during the pandemic. OWS’s efforts to develop Covid-19 vaccines are often considered the crowning achievement of what went right. Unfortunately, I fear its benefits are exaggerated, and its costs are just beginning.