The Covid-19 vaccines currently leave something to be desired. The immunity they give wanes over time, and potentially requiring yearly boosters is a strategy doomed to failure. Each year, only about 50 percent of Americans get a flu shot; an annual Covid shot would likely see even less uptake and cost many more billions of dollars annually.
The Covid vaccines reliably protect against severe disease—but a better vaccine, like the measles vaccines, would produce “sterilizing immunity” that prevents infection altogether. It would work indefinitely, be given as a nasal spray, and protect not just against past strains of Covid but against future strains and similar viruses as well. The government can help private industry develop such a shot by launching a new iteration of Operation Warp Speed.
As far as government programs go, it’s hard to think of a more successful recent one than Operation Warp Speed. As Trump official Paul Mango recounts in his new memoir, it succeeded because it gave the market a target to hit, reduced financial risk for businesses seeking to meet it—and got out of the way. Americans had access to vaccines much more quickly than Europeans, whose bureaucrats haggled and delayed. And companies with American owners using American technology were leaders in the vaccine race. The spike protein shared across the most successful vaccines was first designed at the University of Texas by Jason McLellan and National Institute of Health scientists Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett, while the key discoveries enabling mRNA vaccines were made at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania.
Calls to remove intellectual property protections from Covid vaccines represent the wrong approach. Patents are imperfect and can stifle competition, but reducing the market incentive to develop life-saving drugs will mean fewer lives saved in the future.
Instead, an Operation Warp Speed 2.0—aimed at developing a “universal coronavirus vaccine”—would both guarantee a strong market price for effective vaccines and pay for critical parts of the process to supercharge development. The cost would be high, possibly north of $10 billion, but most of the money would be spent only if results were achieved. Moreover, developing a vaccine with durable immunity across future strains would save money if it prevents the need for annual boosters, which, if necessary, would likely cost billions of dollars annually to Medicare alone.
Skeptics may ask why we need more vaccines when the country is generally returning to normalcy. But two risks keep biosecurity experts up at night. First, because even the combination of current vaccines and natural immunity is not enough to prevent continued transmission, we are giving Covid-19 ample time and opportunity to evolve more evasive and possibly deadlier variants. The lack of protection in immunocompromised people, who can effectively serve as incubators for new variants, adds to the problem. Second, even in the best-case scenario, if no variant worse than Omicron emerges, Covid-19 will remain a moderate, permanent tax on human health, adding to our yearly allotment of influenza, rhinovirus, and other common cold viruses.
Neither scenario is ideal. Yet none of the solutions that Democrats have pushed for—perpetual masking for schoolchildren, periodic reimposition of wider mask mandates, repeated boosting, mandatory vaccination—will fix those problems. Even European nations that have pushed to require boosting every nine months are still seeing high numbers of Omicron cases. We need to unleash the market on solving better vaccines.
Multiple candidates could use federal help. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has just completed preclinical studies on their candidate, while scientists at Duke are trialing another. An integrative effort like the first Operation Warp Speed would require motivating pharmaceutical companies to invest in development by guaranteeing purchase of an effective vaccine in advance; cutting red tape by getting clear guidance from the FDA on what data universal vaccines would require for approval; validating vaccines more rapidly, via data generated by a human challenge model for Covid and other coronaviruses; and creating a well-organized effort in the federal government to run these efforts, modeled after OWS 1.0, with an experienced industry expert at the helm.
Warp Speed 2.0 would leverage the U.S.’s world-beating pharmaceutical industry and our government’s procurement expertise to produce next-generation vaccines. The idea originated in a Republican administration, but we hope that the Biden administration will see the good sense in imitating it.