Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect the correct rank and title for Matt Clark and Matthew Hepburn.
On the day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, a new set of orders came down the chain of command to the Operation Warp Speed team working under Gen. Gustave Perna: The signs must come down. With the efficiency that one would expect from the program that had delivered three coronavirus vaccines to the country in record time, the Operation Warp Speed signs were all stripped from the walls of headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services and placed inside a locked room.
And, by the way, the operation would also no longer be called Warp Speed. On daily video calls with David Kessler, the pediatrician that Biden installed to oversee what remained of the effort, it was awkwardly referred to as “the operation” and was just another piece of the federal COVID-19 response. The military’s role in the effort went from being front and center to being a background player, its contributions lost amid the politics of an overheated election season. Having spent the past 18 months researching the history of Operation Warp Speed, I feel more convinced than ever that the military should continue to play a public role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, not only within our own borders but around the world.
It’s a little-known fact that Operation Warp Speed was launched by a military man. Robert Kadlec, a former Air Force flight surgeon and veteran of several tours of duty in Iraq, was serving as the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS when he recruited Peter Marks of the Food and Drug Administration to help him come up with a plan to speed up vaccine development and manufacturing efforts. Bringing the Department of Defense inside HHS headquarters was a stroke of genius to protect the embattled health agency, which was being torn apart by competing factions inside the White House during the coronavirus crisis. It would also bring some much-needed discipline to the program.
Within weeks, the military invasion of the Hubert H. Humphrey building, the brutalist concrete building on Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., had begun with Army personnel marching on the dingy brown carpets of the health department in their combat boots. Matthew Hepburn, a retired Army colonel, was standing in the vast parking lot outside the Pentagon when he got the call from Peter Marks to take over his role so that Marks could return to the FDA. “Oh my god, the amount of responsibility,” Hepburn recalled. He shuddered at the thought. He knew it would be the mission that defined his life.
The logo for Operation Warp Speed was a hybrid of the official seals of the Department of Defense and the Department of Defense and Health and Human Services. It featured a coronavirus capsule at the center with radial streaks of stars zooming past as if moving at warp speed. Although there were culture clashes for sure, these strange bedfellows found a way to achieve that which was once thought impossible.
Moncef Slaoui, the Moroccan pharmaceutical executive recruited to lead the overall effort, soon roared into the parking lot of the Humphrey building in his black Ferrari. As different as he was from Perna, a four-star general, the two men saw much to admire in each other. The cosmopolitan Slaoui was a polite but decisive man with a corny sense of humor, while Perna was a Jersey guy who couldn’t get through his day without dropping a football analogy. After the annual Army-Navy football game last December, Slaoui taunted Perna by showing up at the Humphrey building wearing the jersey of the Navy team.
After months of uncertainty this spring, the operation formerly known as Warp Speed finally got a new, clunky name: the Countermeasures Acceleration Group. Although the team directed some of their attention towards coronavirus variants and on rolling out vaccines on a global scale, its mission soon lost the focus it once had. In many ways, this is the melancholy way that every successful military operation has to end. Perna retired over the summer and other members scattered to move on with their lives or take on other roles in the pandemic response. Col. Matt Clark, an Operation Warp Speed veteran who had previously deployed to Iraq, among other roles in the Army, is now leading the Biden team’s international COVID response.
While the world’s richest countries have reached vaccination rates of 50 percent or more, many countries in Africa have scarcely received a dose. Haiti’s vaccination rate sits at 1.2 percent. Last month, Andy Slavitt, a former senior advisor to the Biden administration’s COVID Response Coordinator, tweeted that following the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, “It may be time to send them to Africa & Haiti to assist with vaccination efforts & saving lives.” The pushback from the public health community online was predictably fierce, suggesting that military involvement would reek of imperialism and paternalism. Others took the moment to criticize the hiccups in the first weeks of the U.S. rollout, which were due more to manufacturing challenges and political leadership than the military involvement. Operation Warp Speed, in my view, remains a testament to the mission-focus that the organization can bring to the table in a time of national crisis. It’s a lesson that, regardless of our politics, I hope we don’t soon forget.
Today, those Operation Warp Speed signs that were pulled off the walls have become collector’s items. Col. Michael Post, who worked on vaccine manufacturing efforts, managed to get his hands on one of them. Before his deployment came to an end, he took it around the Humphrey building so that everyone could sign it.
Los Angeles-based journalist Brendan Borrell is the author of “The First Shots: The Epic Rivalries and Heroic Science Behind the Race to the Coronavirus Vaccine.” At 2 p.m. EST on Dec. 1, 2021, he’ll be joining Popular Mechanics editor Courtney Linder in a conversation with Gen. Gustave Perna and Matt Hepburn, a retired Army colonel, on Twitter Spaces.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.