The lessons of “Operation Warp Speed” – the race to produce a vaccine

Governments and companies can learn from the extraordinary global effort to create a vaccine to defeat Covid-19, says Matthew Lynn.

The creation, approval and large-scale manufacturing of a Covid-19 vaccine in less than a year is among the most notable scientific and technological achievements in history. Led by Operation Warp Speed in the US, and with similar initiatives in other countries, including the UK, vast scientific resources have been mobilised to crack a huge global crisis. The effort has succeeded magnificently. 

What governments got right

Governments around the world got plenty wrong in their response to the virus. But they got one thing right. They threw a lot of money at getting a vaccine. In the US, Operation Warp Speed was given a budget of $10bn to distribute to anyone who might be able to help. In this country, government help was available for the Oxford and Imperial vaccines, and the same was true in Russia, China and across much of the developed world. 

Just as significantly, by pre-ordering vaccines on a vast scale, governments guaranteed a market for any company that could produce an effective jab. The billions spent might seem like a lot of money, but it was peanuts, of course, compared to the vast cost of coping with the epidemic. It was money well spent. The interesting question, however, is this. What can any company, or indeed government, learn from the success of that project? Here are four places to start. 

1. Focus

The companies and research institutes working on creating a vaccine didn’t have to worry about diversity, market share, delivering value for different stakeholders or governance structures. In fact, they didn’t have to worry about anything other than the single overriding purpose of devising a safe and effective jab as fast as possible. Clarity of purpose makes a huge difference. We expect businesses to deliver a range of economic, social, and environmental goals, and while they might all be worthwhile, it is often more effective to have just a single objective and concentrate completely on it. It gets results. 

2. Incentives matter

University research institutes have contributed hugely to the scientific work – especially Oxford and Imperial – but most of the work has been done in the private sector. Pfizer didn’t even take the money on offer from the US government because it didn’t want its scientist to be bogged down in politics and targets. Instead, patent rights have been preserved and companies are being paid standard commercial rates for the vaccines despite pressure for it all to be taken under state control. The result? Businesses have had plenty of incentives to create a vaccine, and to put in place all the infrastructure to deliver it to hundreds of millions of people because they can make money from doing so. It is very simple – but it works every time. 

3. Embark on different stages of a process simultaneously

New medicines usually get created step by step. It takes a year or two to develop a drug, then another couple of years to do the trials, then a year or so for approvals, and then another year to get the factories ready and get it into the medical system. So it can be a decade before the product is on the market. If tests are done at the same time as factories are prepared, however, it can all happen much faster. From infrastructure projects to consumer goods there are lessons in that for every kind of product. Sure, it costs more, but if it makes everything happen faster, then it might be worth it. 

4. Accelerate the approvals process 

Finally, accelerate regulation too. Whatever the anti-vaxxers might say, there is no evidence that there have been any compromises on the safety trials for the Covid-19 vaccines. But the regulatory checks have been sped up. Instead of waiting for every test to be completed, and a huge dossier to be compiled, regulators have constantly monitored the vaccine candidates as their trials were completed. The result? They could approve drugs far more quickly. Other regulatory agencies could learn from that. Lots of industries, from finance to telecoms to the media, need supervision – but it doesn’t need to slow everything down as much as it does. 

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