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One sunny spring morning in May 2020, President Donald Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced what would turn out to be his administration's most striking success: Operation Warp Speed, which combined an influx of money with some trimming of bureaucracy to generate safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19 in record time.
Trump's promises about Operation Warp Speed are easy to forget, but at the time doubts about the project were extremely widespread.
So it's sad or funny — or both — that Operation Warp Speed has already emerged as a vulnerability for Trump in the 2024 presidential campaign, with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida moving to distinguish himself from Trump as a vaccine skeptic. And Trump, rather than touting his achievement, has been reduced to accusing DeSantis of only pretending to be anti-vaccine, noting (accurately) that DeSantis was enthusiastic about vaccinations when the program was first underway.
Watching Republicans compete to distance themselves from a major GOP policy success would be amusing if it weren't so depressing. Because the implications for the country, and the next pandemic, are serious.
The underlying debate over Operation Warp Speed wasn't a new policy dispute. Long before the pandemic, there was a conservative critique that the Food and Drug Administration is too slow and too risk-averse when it comes to authorizing new medications. Alex Tabarrok, a George Mason University economist, wrote about the "invisible graveyard" that could have been avoided if the FDA took expected value more seriously and considered the cost of delay in its authorization decisions.
The pandemic experience validated this criticism, which came to be embraced by some on the left as well. And it was about more than just vaccines.
When it came to home COVID-19 tests, Ezra Klein noted in the New York Times in 2021, "the problem here is the Food and Drug Administration. They have been disastrously slow in approving these tests and have held them to a standard more appropriate to doctor's offices than home testing."
Tabarrok read that column and observed that suddenly "the reality of deadly delay is almost conventional wisdom."
Over the past two years, however, it's become clear that the old conventional wisdom still prevails. Despite a flurry of progressive enthusiasm for COVID-19 vaccines, there's been no effort to systematize or institutionalize the successes of Operation Warp Speed.
People are currently being offered vaccines that were developed for COVID-19 variants that have long since vanished, because the testing and approval process is too slow to keep pace with the evolution of the virus.
Scientists see promise in the idea of developing next-generation vaccines that might target all members of the coronavirus family (thus being effective against all COVID-19 variants), or ones that are administered nasally (where they might have greater transmission-blocking power). But neither has received fast-track funding or an express lane to regulatory approval.
Patrick Collison, a technology entrepreneur who has funded some of this vaccine research, describes a bureaucratic morass in which progress is being held up by things like delays in getting test animals through customs.
This is a significant failing of President Joe Biden's administration. At the same time, it's not surprising that Democrats are comfortable with the bureaucratic status quo and hesitant to ruffle feathers at federal regulatory agencies. What's shocking is that Republicans — the traditional party of deregulation, the party that argued for years that the FDA is too slow-footed, the party that saved untold lives by accelerating vaccine development under Trump — have abandoned these positions.
In the wake of what should have been a huge policy victory, Republicans don't brag about their success, and they have no FDA reform legislation to offer. Instead, they've taken up the old mantle of hard-left skepticism of modern science and the pharmaceutical industry. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his new majority have no plans to investigate the costs of FDA delays during the pandemic, while DeSantis is asking for a grand jury to investigate the vaccines themselves.
With the party of small government and less regulation focused on the need for greater oversight of both the vaccines and the approval process, there's no way the invisible graveyard is going to get serious attention.
Beyond the short-term politics, this turn of events will surely make the FDA less open to change. What conservative wonks had in the past asked of the FDA was to be more neutral in its assessment of the risks of moving too quickly vs. too slowly. That makes a lot of sense in the abstract.
In the real world, bureaucrats worry that they'll be blamed by the public and politicians for errors of commission (approving a medicine that later turns out to be dangerous) more than for errors of omission (requiring three more years of tests and data before approving something that turns out to be safe).
The irony of the present moment is that there is substantial backlash to the FDA's approval of vaccines that haven't turned out to be dangerous at all.
That's only going to make regulators even more cautious. Right now the entire U.S. regulatory state is taking essentially no heat for the slow progress on the next generation of vaccines, and an enormous amount of heat for the perfectly safe vaccines that it already approved. And the ex-president who pushed them to speed up their work on those vaccines is not only no longer defending them, he's embarrassed to have ever been associated with the project.
Like I said, it's a comical moment of Republican infighting. But it's a very grim situation for anyone concerned with the pace of scientific progress in America.