New York – The United States may waste a tremendous amount of taxpayer money preparing to produce failed COVID-19 vaccines. That is a smart strategy.
The Trump administration is putting together an initiative called Operation Warp Speed, involving companies, government agencies and the military, aimed at collapsing the time required to create a novel vaccine against COVID-19. The goal is to have one ready by the end of this year.
The group probably can’t meet such a tight deadline. It’s practically impossible to develop novel biological products that are both safe and useful that fast, and there’s only so much the government can do to speed things up. But it can help by ensuring that, once a vaccine is ready, millions of doses can be manufactured right away.
Vaccine development is lengthy, expensive and risky because developing a drug that can provide a durable immune response is complicated. Just look at the number of viruses for which there are no vaccines at all, and the fluctuating effectiveness of annual flu vaccines. What’s more, any vaccine that’s meant to be broadly given to a healthy population has to clear an exceptionally high safety bar.
The fact that multiple candidates are already in human trials is evidence that researchers are working as fast as they can. Operation Warp Speed may help by better coordinating efforts and facilitating large, standardized trials of multiple candidates. What it can’t do, however, is simplify human biology or lower the risk that drastically accelerated projects, many using relatively untested approaches, will fail.
Improving that part of the equation requires a different type of Manhattan Project: a long-term effort to develop pandemic-ready vaccine technology and shift the bad market incentives that have pushed many drugmakers away from infectious disease research.
Operation Warp Speed stands to help most by addressing the high risk of failure — by building out "at-risk” manufacturing capacity for multiple promising vaccine candidates. Waiting for concrete proof from clinical trials of any vaccine’s effectiveness before beginning this process would add months of delay in producing enough doses to inoculate a population. Ideally, Warp Speed will have robust funding, enough to waste some getting ready to produce vaccines that don’t work out.
That could include almost all them now in development, several of which are produced with technology that’s never been adapted to population-scale production. Wasteful spending on the candidates that fail is worthwhile, because the potential benefits of just one that works — whether it arrives next January, March or June — would be priceless.
Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharmacology and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.