DOD takes lead role in Trump's 'Operation Warp Speed' vaccine effort

By Tony Bertuca / May 15, 2020 at 2:09 PM

President Trump today launched a whole-of-government COVID-19 vaccine effort called "Operation Warp Speed" and said the Pentagon will have a major role to play.

"When a vaccine is ready, the U.S. government will deploy every plane, truck and soldier required to help distribute it to the American people as quickly as possible," he said during a White House press conference alongside senior government officials.

Trump has named Army Materiel Command chief Gen. Gus Perna to the "Operation Warp Speed" leadership team.

Perna, who appeared with the president today in the Rose Garden, said DOD would rely on its logistical and sustainment capabilities to bolster the vaccine effort.

"It will be a herculean task," he said, but added: "We will defeat the enemy. Why? Because winning matters."

Perna will be working with venture capitalist Moncef Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKline's vaccines division, who will be the chief adviser on "Operation Warp Speed."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper promised the full weight of the Defense Department and pledged a vaccine would be ready by the end of the year "at scale to treat the American people and our partners abroad."

Esper's pledge, however, does not align with the statements of many public health experts who think it will take much longer for a vaccine to be developed, tested and distributed.

Earlier this week, DOD announced a $138 million contract with ApiJect Systems America to "dramatically expand" U.S. production of domestically manufactured, medical-grade injection devices starting by October 2020. To ensure rapid distribution, DOD said, hundreds of millions of syringes will be at the ready in the event a vaccine is developed.

Meanwhile, DOD has removed Jen Santos as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy, where she was the point person for leveraging the Defense Production Act to ramp up medical supplies to fight COVID-19. Santos has been reassigned to the Navy.

Chief DOD spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said today the personnel situation presented an “opportunity” for the department to identify someone with a different "background" from Santos who could better assist Operation Warp Speed.

The same day Santos' removal went public, Trump signed an executive order delegating new and sweeping DPA authorities to Adam Boehler, chief executive officer of the United States International Development Finance Corporation.

"Accordingly, I am delegating authority under title III of the Act to make loans, make provision for purchases and commitments to purchase, and take additional actions to create, maintain, protect, expand, and restore the domestic industrial base capabilities, including supply chains within the United States and its territories ("domestic supply chains"), needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak," Trump wrote.

During the press conference, Trump said Operation Warp Speed would integrate existing lines of federal effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and try to cut as much red tape as possible.

Trump said, however, the U.S. economy must begin to re-open soon, despite the warnings of many health experts who worry that ending economically costly social distancing policies too soon could cause a spike in infections.

"I want to make one thing clear," he said. "Vaccine or no vaccine, we're back."