by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As President Biden picks up the “industrial policy” baton from Donald Trump, it has become accepted wisdom that “Operation Warp Speed” (OWS) shows how such policy can surmount “market failures” to achieve major national objectives. The Biden administration’s new report on “critical supply chains,” for example, uses OWS to justify its industrial-policy proposals, and in doing so links to work calling OWS “a triumph and validation of industrial policy.” And Senator Marco Rubio echoed this conclusion a few weeks earlier, when he claimed on Twitter that “the free market would have eventually developed a vaccine, but we would all still be wearing masks without Operation Warp Speed.”
This potted, bipartisan history, however, omits crucial facts that turn OWS from a clear “industrial-policy success” to, at best, a useful complement to incredible private-sector efforts and, at worst, a cautionary tale of how industrial policy can impede such efforts.
To be clear, OWS undoubtedly subsidized the production of several successful COVID-19 vaccines in a remarkably short period of time. But those claiming OWS drove that success must contend with several uncomfortable facts.
First of all, the BioNTech/Pfizer shot — the first vaccine to market and the most successful — was created and produced outside of OWS. BioNTech is a German company, and it had been working on mRNA vaccines for years when it announced its partnership with Pfizer in March 2020, two months before OWS got off the ground. In April 2020, still one month before OWS began, Pfizer’s management predicted that it would distribute millions of finished doses by the end of the year. …
… Pfizer and BioNTech also refused government funding for initial R&D, testing, and production support out of fear that it would politicize or delay their work. Instead, they leveraged Pfizer’s resources, multinational research teams, global capital markets and supply chains, and a logistics-and-transportation infrastructure developed over decades.