Book Review: Warp Speed – One of the Most Successful Private-Public Partnerships

Operation Warp Speed_	Bill Oxford

 Bill Oxford/Getty Images

Warp Speed is an inspiring, must-read, behind-the-scenes look at what may be the most successful public-private partnership in recent times. There are lessons to be learned here, and the book is a page-turner even if you’re not a scientist, policy wonk, or, for that matter, a Trump supporter.

In fact, many of the leaders of Operation Warp Speed expressed reservations before joining the program. Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser, is one example. As author Paul Mango (one of Operation Warp Speed's key leaders) wrote, “He was not a supporter of Republican causes and did not want the president reelected, but he knew this would ultimately be about saving lives.” Therefore, he joined Operation Warp Speed.

Warp Speed Book CoverLike a good thriller, Mango begins Warp Speed with ominous words: “We have a problem in China.” He’s quoting Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on a phone call with Mango’s boss Alex Azar, then secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. From there, he begins a detailed, well-footnoted, look at what was known and when it was known and, importantly, what could be done about it and how that could be accomplished as efficiently and safely as possible – in other words, at warp speed.

This is more than a timeline, though. Ultimately, Warp Speed is about teamwork and crisis management.

For the casual reader, Warp Speed is a testament to the care and attention given to the process of developing a vaccine for a hither-to unknown virus without cutting corners regarding safety or efficacy.

For business executives, Warp Speed is a case study in crisis management, showing how to optimize efficiency while maintaining stringent standards in a highly regulated industry.

For government officials, it is a lesson in how the government can most effectively be used to solve problems. As Mango concluded, “When used appropriately and for good, when led by selfless servants and when transformed to bypass the normal bureaucratic processes, the federal government and the American people can achieve the seemingly impossible.”

There were hiccups in the journey, of course, and Mango doesn’t mince words describing them. He details multiple issues involving Pfizer, which, with BioNTech, ultimately delivered the first COVID-19 vaccine to the American public.

Mango also notes contentious board meetings. The three primary tensions involved:

1. Deb Birx, White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator, whom Slaoui called “an overly aggressive scientist.”

2. The Army Material Command and the CDC’s Nancy Messonnier, former director of the National Center for Immunization Respiratory Diseases over use of public/private sector resources.

4. Pfizer’s reluctance to work with Operation Warp Speed.

At their heart, many of the tensions were rooted in the need for people and organizations to look beyond “business as usual.” That was harder for some than for others.

President Trump’s involvement, Mango said, was to clear roadblocks. As Senator Tom Cotton notes in the foreword, “The Trump administration was willing to take risks, create precedents, slice through red tape and other bureaucratic Gordian knots, and do whatever was necessary to develop safe and effective vaccines in record time.”

The transition to the Biden Administration and the swift cancellation of Operation Warp Speed are discussed, too, shedding insights into the pandemic-related concerns of the Trump and Biden Administrations. The plans for vaccine distribution and strategies to combat vaccine hesitancy (admittedly rather belatedly) also are addressed. These discussions explored problems for where there were rarely any easy solutions and involved a plethora of concerns to which the public was only nominally aware.

This is interesting reading, made more so by readers’ ability to recall some of the inflection points that were reported at the time.

More important than the personalities, however, was the teamwork exemplified by the Operation Warp Speed team. Whatever the stress at the moment, Saloui made it clear that everyone who was part of Operation Warp Speed was, first and foremost, a member of that team rather than a representative of their various agencies. After the Biden Administration disbanded the task force upon taking office, Mango talked with many of his now-former teammates. As he wrote, “Most commented that it was the single best team experience of their lives. That was true for me, too.”

Regarding lessons learned, Warp Speed succinctly lists its keys to success – insights that will be important in combatting any future health crises:

1. Leveraging genetic techniques that, while used previously, had not been applied to vaccine development.

2. Performing tasks in parallel that typically were performed sequentially.

3. Spreading the risk by developing several vaccine candidates for investment.

4. Designing a governance structure that bypassed “the slow grind of bureaucratic decision-making.”

5. Developing a leadership philosophy around delegation to those with the most knowledge and experience rather than title, collaboration, and preventing the government from doing things the private sector does better.

Mango also points out failings in the task force itself. The realization that many healthcare workers didn’t want the vaccine, for instance, was shocking. It caused members to rethink the rollout and the minimal use of social media. In hindsight, Mango wrote, a behavioral scientist should have been on the team.

Operation Warp Speed was an enormous undertaking. At the Rose Garden announcement of the project, Saloui announced the U.S. would have at least one safe, effective vaccine by year’s end. Making that statement was, Saloui said, like “jumping off a cliff without a parachute.” For the Operation Warp Speed team, success was a hard-fought battle, every day.

“Neither the government nor industry could have done all this alone,” Mango wrote.

Warp Speed shows what is possible when innovative men and women from the public and private sectors set aside their varying political ideologies and work for the common good. It is engaging and inspiring and makes for page-turning, highlighter-in-hand reading.

Note: Warp Speed, published by Republic Book Publishers, became available digitally March 15 and will be available in hardcover May 18.

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