In early March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping across Europe and on its way to engulfing North America, U.S. President Donald Trump predicted that a vaccine could be available in “a matter of months” to combat the novel coronavirus responsible for the disease.
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Mr. Trump’s upbeat assessment. Not much of what he had ever said could be taken at face value. He had often lied in public. And he had played down the global threat posed by the coronavirus from the moment the first cases of a then-unnamed respiratory ailment had emerged almost three months earlier in China.
“I’ve heard very quick numbers – a matter of months – and I’ve heard pretty much a year would be an outside number,” Mr. Trump said on March 2 after a meeting on vaccine development with pharmaceutical executives and his own White House coronavirus task force.
The day after Mr. Trump’s upbeat assertion, Anthony Fauci offered a less optimistic timeline for a vaccine in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee. The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warned: “We need to make sure that it’s safe and we need to make sure it works. That entire process will take at least a year and a year and a half.”
The Washington Post concluded then that Mr. Trump appeared to be “misrepresenting how fast a vaccine will be available to the public in fighting the novel coronavirus. Dr. Fauci has repeatedly corrected the President’s comments on the vaccine to put forward a more accurate timeline.”
What the skeptics failed to count on was the incredible determination of the Trump administration to deliver on its promise of vaccine rollout by year-end. Historians will have their hands full enumerating the many failures of Mr. Trump’s presidency and his overall mismanagement of his country’s pandemic response. But his legacy will be undeniably enhanced by the historic vaccine breakthroughs that were underwritten by his administration.
In May, Mr. Trump launched Operation Warp Speed, a US$10-billion effort to expedite the development of potential vaccines aimed at “derisking” the process for pharmaceutical companies. Weeks before OWS’s formal launch, the Trump administration had awarded almost US$1-billion to Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to underwrite their research. Under the leadership of former GlaxoSmithKline executive Moncef Slaoui, OWS soon began to live up to its name.
OWS invested US$1.2-billion in Oxford-AstraZeneca’s candidate vaccine, securing 300 million future doses for the United States. Pfizer spurned direct government research funding as it jointly developed a vaccine with German biotech company BioNTech. (The latter did receive €375-million, the equivalent of US$461-million, from the German government in September.) But Pfizer signed a US$1.95-billion deal with the Trump administration in July “for the large-scale manufacturing and nationwide distribution” of a future Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
In August, Johnson & Johnson followed suit, receiving US$1-billion from OWS to “support the manufacturing and delivery” of a future vaccine. A week later, Moderna, a Massachusetts-based startup that had never brought a drug to market, secured US$1.5-billion from OWS to enable it to manufacture its vaccine.
Without OWS funding, it is unlikely any shareholder-owned pharmaceutical company would have made massive investments in the manufacturing supply chain needed to produce vaccines still in the developmental phase and whose efficacy remained uncertain. “While we are big companies, nobody can free up US$2-billion in their [profit-and-loss] statement overnight,” Johnson & Johnson chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels told Bloomberg Businessweek.
Apart from the ingenuity, devotion and hard work of the scientists behind the vaccines now (or soon to be) going into the arms of millions of people around the world, the single biggest factor accounting for their record pace of the development and distribution remains OWS. Most of the planet is benefiting from Mr. Trump’s efforts. He did something right. In the process, he produced a model public-private partnership. Who would have thought?
With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines now being administered in this country, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine likely to be available here soon, Canadians are among the first to benefit from OWS. From this point on, the federal government will be judged on the pace with which it secures enough vaccines to inoculate a majority of Canadians against COVID-19 as quickly as possible, even if it will likely pay a higher price for each dose than Washington.
Two weeks ago, The Post posted an update to its fact-checking article on Mr. Trump’s March comments on vaccine development. “A coronavirus vaccine was administered to the first U.S. citizen on Dec. 14,” it said. “The vaccine development was faster than scientists expected, in part due to the high caseloads in the U.S.”
The correction hardly did justice to the task accomplished by the Trump administration. History may be kinder to Mr. Trump.
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