Jan 14, 2023 - Health

The symbolic end of Operation Warp Speed

Illustration of a mask with the word "exit" punched out to look like an exit sign.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The departure of COVID chief science officer David Kessler, announced Friday by the White House, marks the unofficial end of the "Operation Warp Speed" era and the extraordinary all-of-government response to the pandemic.

Why it matters: The cross-agency effort the Trump and Biden administrations ran to speed up production and distribution of COVID therapeutics is widely viewed as one of the few legitimate successes in the federal pandemic response.

  • But some experts say the government took its foot off the gas way too early, beginning last year with the end of new federal funding for the effort.

What they're saying: Kessler's most valuable contributions came in the way he interacted and brokered deals with drugmakers and kept the flow of countermeasures available to the public, said former NIAID director Anthony Fauci.

  • "Most of what he does is behind the scenes, but it's very valuable," Fauci said of the former FDA administrator, who helped develop and approve HIV/AIDS drugs in the 1990s.
  • Fauci himself retired at the end of last year and has not been replaced. Nor has former NIH Director Francis Collins, who left at the end of 2021 but quickly returned as an acting science adviser to Biden.
  • Jeff Zients, Biden's first COVID response coordinator, left last year and was replaced with Ashish Jha. Zients was largely known for his operational chops, while Jha, a former dean of the Brown School of Public Health, is known for his subject matter expertise.

The big picture: The Trump administration launched Operation Warp Speed just months into the pandemic. The FDA authorized the first COVID vaccine in December of the same year, shaving years off of the typical vaccine development and approval process.

  • Shortly before the Biden administration took office in January, Kessler took the reins from Moncef Slaoui, and the White House announced that the name Operation Warp Speed would be retired.
  • Biden, Kessler and the rest of the COVID team inherited the operation amid a tumultuous initial rollout of the shots. Although two vaccines had already been authorized, the key challenge for them would be getting them in arms — and doing so in an equitable way.

Kessler has since overseen the arrival of several other vaccines, including versions for children. He also oversaw the arrival (and exit) of multiple COVID therapies to market, including Pfizer's antiviral Paxlovid.

  • He was a key player in decision-making around vaccine boosters and the challenges presented by ever-evolving virus variants.
  • There are no plans to replace him, according to a Biden official.

Between the lines: Although funding for COVID treatments and vaccines initially received bipartisan support, Republicans blocked the White House's request for billions in additional pandemic response funding last year. The existing therapies are transitioning to the private market.

  • That means the federal government is no longer coordinating or taking on financial risks surrounding new treatments and vaccines, which some experts have said is a mistake. Many have called for investment in areas like variant-resistant vaccines, new antivirals and vaccines administered via the nose.
  • New therapeutics for all kinds of diseases have come to market without such heavy-handed federal intervention. But the pandemic poses unique challenges, especially the speed at which the virus evolves.
  • "HHS has a team of doctors, scientists, and public health officials with deep expertise and experience that will continue to work in close coordination with the White House and private industry on research and development, including next-generation vaccines," said an HHS spokesperson.

By the numbers: Existing products aren't exactly in high demand. Less than 18% of American adults have received an updated booster shot, per the CDC, including only 38% of seniors.

The bottom line: The pandemic is unlikely to register for most Americans or politicians unless a dangerous, vaccine-resistant new variant emerges. If that does happen, the country will be unprepared.

  • The end of Operation Warp Speed is a mistake, said Robert Kadlec, who worked on the effort under former President Trump as the assistant secretary for preparedness and response. A new variant could emerge — or an entirely different kind of coronavirus.
  • "There's no incentive for the companies to anticipate changes in the virus or to fund a universal coronavirus candidate," he said. "And I would argue that it is in the interest of the U.S. government in light of its obligations to prepare for the next pandemic."
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