The federal government has launched “Operation Warp Speed” to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine by January, months ahead of standard vaccine timelines.
The last time the government tried that, it was a total fiasco.
Gerald Ford was president. It was 1976. Early that year, a mysterious new strain of swine flu turned up at Fort Dix, New Jersey. One Army private died. Many others became severely ill. The nation’s top infectious disease doctors were shaken.
“They were well aware of the ravages of the 1918 flu, and this virus appeared to be closely related,” political scientist Max Skidmore wrote in his book, “Presidents, Pandemics, and Politics.” “The officials were concerned about a repetition of the tragedy, or the threat of perhaps an even more virulent pandemic.”
Ford raced to come up with a response, consulting with Jonas Salk and Alfred Sabin, the scientists behind the polio vaccine, and in late March he announced an audacious plan for the federal government to both produce the vaccine and organize its distribution.
“No one knows exactly how serious this threat could be,” Ford said, with Salk and Sabin by his side, a shocking sight given the two scientists had become enemies over who should get credit for the polio vaccine. “Nevertheless we cannot afford to take a chance with the health of our nation.”
Every American, Ford said, would be vaccinated.
The government had never attempted such an endeavor — both in its breadth and speed.
Almost immediately, there was chaos.
According to Skidmore, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, insurers were concerned about liability and balked at covering the costs. Manufacturers the government wanted to partner with had similar concerns, prompting Congress to pass a law waiving liability.
One manufacturer produced two million doses with the wrong strain. As tests progressed, more scientific problems emerged — even as there were few, if any, signs that a pandemic was materializing. In June, tests showed the vaccine was not effective in children, prompting a public squabble between Salk and Sabin over who should be vaccinated.
But Ford was undeterred. He directed the vaccination program to proceed, announcing plans to inoculate one million people per day by the fall — an unprecedented timeline the government struggled to meet.
By mid-October, vaccinations were underway. Ford was injected by the White House doctor.
And then more problems emerged. There were reports of sporadic deaths possibly connected to the vaccine. Cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome also emerged, and are still cited today by the anti-vaccine movement. Panic emerged, with dozens of states pausing vaccinations.
By December, following 94 reports of paralysis, the entire program was shut down.
Almost immediately, in grand Washington fashion, fingers were pointed. Scientists and government officials turned on each other, with allegations that Ford acted recklessly for political gain without knowing for sure whether a pandemic would emerge — an impossible predictive game, his defenders argued.
The recriminations were fueled by the fact that the swine flu pandemic hadn’t materialized.
“Had it done so,” Skidmore wrote, “the swine flu vaccination program would immediately have been reinstituted.” The risk-benefit analysis — a relatively small number of cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome vs. widespread death from the flu — would have appeared differently.
Despite the problems, Skidmore and other historians have given the program credit for its swiftness in the face of typical government red tape. The infrastructure Ford’s team set up was able to quickly identify the side effects. And in the end, Ford had the backing of the world’s foremost vaccine experts — Salk and Sabin.
The program “appears clearly to have been based on concern for the public good,” Skidmore wrote, “not to achieve political advantage.”