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Operation Warp Speed: A Template for Successful Public/Private Partnerships

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Julie A. Bargo
March 15, 2021

On May 15, 2020, the Trump Administration implemented Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to develop therapeutics and a vaccine to combat COVID-19. Much to the chagrin of detractors and political hacks who swore it could not be done, OWS paved the way for two viable vaccines from American pharmaceutical companies to be engineered, mass-produced and distributed by December 2020 with more on the way in Spring 2021. Public administration academicians and managers have an obligation to pursue a deeper understanding of the operational framework of OWS, as it is perhaps the best example of a successful public/private partnership since such things existed. OWS provides us with a template for how to successfully operationalize future policy interventions where a partnership between the public and private sectors is required to solve the problems we face. What follows are this author’s three most important takeaways from OWS and support for why it deserves a place in the lexicon of Public Administration as the way to successfully operationalize a public-private partnership.

First and foremost, OWS allowed for the intellectual efficiency of the private sector to be maximized to the advantage of the public sector. One of the most ingenious functions of OWS was the implementation of a funding mechanism which allowed for government intervention and adherence to FDA guidelines without threatening the autonomy and ingenuity of the pharmaceutical companies. The funding mechanism utilized by OWS is based on incentive rather than government control. The research, development and engineering of a new vaccine in record time that is also safe and effective is not only a grand scientific-undertaking, but also an expensive one. OWS allowed Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to be in charge of the science and manufacturing processes while obligating the United States government to be the first customer in line to purchase vaccine doses.

Secondly, OWS helped to foster a synergistic working relationship among government organizations which are, more often than not, beholden to turf wars and animosity. OWS merged the administrative and budgetary forces of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and the Department of State to reach its objective, which, as stated on the official OWS website, was to use the resources of the federal government and the United States private sector to accelerate the testing, supply, development, and distribution of safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to counter COVID-19 by January 2021.

The fact that all of these government agencies worked together to deliver a new vaccine for the novel COVID-19 virus approximately one month before the targeted date is remarkable. Government agencies are known for taking longer than expected and going over budget when implementing policy while simultaneously achieving results below what was originally expected. From the results we see right now, OWS delivered its first round of vaccines ahead of schedule and within budget. This is the exception to the rule and we owe it to the American people to replicate these results time and again in all policy interventions.

Thirdly, OWS contributed and is still contributing to solutions for other problems within government. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a national security vulnerability that had gone unaddressed for many years: the out-sourcing of our national supply chain. For decades, the politicians had allowed American food, medication and medical equipment to be entrusted to foreign governments. One of the many lessons learned from COVID-19 is that this needed to change. As a result of OWS and the challenges experienced during supply chain interruptions during the early days of the pandemic, on January 15, 2021, the Department of Defense in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services announced a $69.3 million contract with CONTINUUS Pharmaceuticals, Inc. to develop a domestic production capability for critical active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and final dosage form medicines using their proprietary integrated continuous manufacturing (ICM) technology. ICM enables rapid, on-demand production of medicines from API to final dosage form without interruption in a fully-automated, small-footprint facility.

The American people owe a debt of gratitude to the public and private employees who worked to ensure a victory over COVID-19 with the rapid development of vaccines made possible by Operation Warp Speed. Although there have been some hiccups with distribution and vaccine administration, this author asserts that these are the result of bad planning and bureaucratic interference from state governments and is a separate case study in and of itself. This author would suggest a future comparative study contrasting what the federal government got right and how the majority of States got it wrong when it came to getting the vaccine in the arms of the American people.

If the data does not convince you of the success of Operation Warp Speed, in that in most jurisdictions COVID-19 positivity rates, hospitalizations and deaths are on the decline, perhaps the willingness of politicians to try and claim credit for what they once said was impossible will help to change your mind. To this author, this is one of the most apparent assurances we have of the success of Operation Warp Speed. I hate to think where we would be today without it.

Author: Julie Bargo holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and History from the University of Kentucky and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Eastern Kentucky University. Julie has worked in a public healthcare setting for nearly 15 years and currently focuses on how the field of Advanced Practice can contribute to sustainable solutions that address healthcare issues in the United States.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @Julie0285

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2 Responses to Operation Warp Speed: A Template for Successful Public/Private Partnerships

  1. James Thurmond Reply

    March 16, 2021 at 5:58 pm

    I do not disagree with your assessment, but it seems to me that OWS had at least two major predeterminants of collaborative efforts going for it:
    1. A mutually agreed upon problem — i.e., the COVID-19 pandemic — which helps to facilitate collaboration. No one disputed the problem.
    2. The funding mechanism which ensured there were plenty of federal resources to underwrite the effort and then a commitment to purchase the vaccines.
    Having said that, it was still a remarkable feat because many of the expert claimed two years for a vaccine.
    I do disagree with your assessment of state governments in the next to last paragraph, because while OWS was true for the development and delivery of the vaccines to major delivery points, I don’t think it covered the actual distribution to the 100,000’s of vaccination points and into the arms of people.

  2. Douglas Reply

    March 15, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    Nice article and to the point, this was an incredible feat of unleashing the private sector with minimal bureaucratic interference and from clinical trials to delivery in under a year.

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