As the nation’s Covid-19 response was careening off the rails in March and April 2020, about a dozen top health and defense department officials huddled in antiseptic meeting rooms to devise what they believed would be the Trump administration’s greatest triumph — a vaccine program so fast, so special, so successful that grateful Americans would forgive earlier failures and business schools would teach classes about it for decades.
They dubbed their project "MP2," for a second Manhattan Project, after the race to create the nuclear weapons that ended World War II. Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services secretary who was often at odds with the White House and his own department, sounded like an Army general rallying his troops: “If we can develop an atomic bomb in 2.5 years and put a man on the moon in seven years, we can do this this year, in 2020," Azar would declare, according to his deputy chief of staff, Paul Mango, who helped lead the strategy sessions.
"It was just a spirit of optimism," Mango added.
Now, in the final days of the Trump administration, their “MP2” — later redubbed “Operation Warp Speed” — occupies a peculiar place in the annals of the administration’s ill-fated response to Covid-19: In many ways, it was successful, living up to the highest expectations of its architects. The Trump administration did help deliver a pair of working vaccines in 2020, with more shots on the way. But the officials who expected to be taking a victory lap on distributing tens of millions of vaccine doses are instead being pressed to explain why the initiative appears to be limping to the finish.
Governors say the Warp Speed effort has made promises it didn’t keep, with deliveries of doses falling short and reserve supplies exhausted. Physicians and logistics experts have critiqued the disorderly rollout, arguing that the Trump team should have done a better job of coordinating the nation’s mass vaccination effort. The incoming Biden administration on Friday morning announced they’d even do away with the initiative’s branding, which President Donald Trump has touted for months.
Operation Warp Speed "is the Trump team’s name for their program. We are phasing in a new structure," tweeted incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki, adding there’s an "urgent need to address failures of the Trump team approach to vaccine distribution."
It’s a deflating end for the Trump officials who conceived of Operation Warp Speed last spring, hanging themed posters inside the health department that boast the slogan "Because Winning Matters!"
POLITICO spoke with 11 officials closely involved in the conception of the vaccine project, in addition to other government officials and outside advisers, about how that optimistic vision of "MP2" became "Operation Warp Speed" — and where the rollout went astray in recent weeks. Many expressed frustration and disappointment, but also a faith that the long arc of history will prove they succeeded — pointing to data that roughly 1 million Americans per day are now getting vaccinated under Trump’s watch, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s own vow to accomplish the same.
The recent news about distribution problems "just sucks," said one health official. "This time it was supposed to be different… it still can be."
And asked if he was disappointed by recent news of setbacks, the cabinet secretary who steered the project offered a response as enigmatic as the program itself.
“You fail to achieve 100 percent of the goals you do not set," Azar says now.
Setting the ambition
The first Manhattan Project, conceived at the dawn of World War II, was an audacious gambit to marry American science with U.S. military might in the race to develop the atom bomb. The self-styled second project would similarly pair scientists and military experts — although in the pursuit of cures, not combat — and stake the pharma industry to make billion-dollar bets on coronavirus treatments that might otherwise never be funded.
And the hope — carried for months by Azar and his deputies, bruised from their battles last spring with the White House’s coronavirus task force — was that their tightly run MP2 operation, and not a task force consumed by political rivalries, would deliver the desperately needed end to this generation’s world war on the virus.
As MP2 was rebranded as Operation Warp Speed, and as promising Covid-19 vaccines sped through trials and into Americans’ arms, the officials believed they’d turned their vision into a reality, racing the clock as the pandemic worsened and the potential end of the administration loomed.
"By the end of this year, 20 million Americans could be vaccinated," Azar effused on Dec. 14, cheering as the first shots were administered at George Washington University Hospital. "By the end of January, 50 million Americans could have had a first vaccination."
But the Trump administration’s heady optimism about vaccine development has collided with sluggish vaccine rollout, tarnishing the $15 billion-plus effort they hoped to leave as a legacy.
Only about 13 million Americans have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to federal data, a far cry from the 30 million-plus people that the Trump administration had hoped to vaccinate by now. Logistical breakdowns have plagued the process; just more than one-third of doses distributed by Operation Warp Speed have been administered, and the initiative’s top military official recently issued a public apology for misleading states on how many vaccine doses they’d get.
The stumbles have sent leaders back to the drawing board — Azar this month hunkered down at Camp David before announcing a revised plan to speed shots and punish laggard states — and sparked recriminations between the federal government and local leaders, with each side pointing fingers at the other. Some Trump officials are also griping about the Centers for Disease Control’s deliberative policies and lack of operational expertise — a reprise of the feuds that marked last year’s bumpy rollout of Covid-19 tests and supplies.
"The narrative that CDC is the harmless victim is bullshit, frankly," said a career government official involved in Operation Warp Speed, reflecting on meetings where defense-department logistics experts were puzzled by the scientific agency’s push to play a major role in vaccine distribution. "We had thought this through, but ended up giving them way too much deference."
While the Atlanta-based CDC has referred politically sensitive questions to HHS, which oversees it, some of its most prominent alumni have rushed to the agency’s defense. "[T]housands of public servants in Atlanta and around the world have spent the past year being maligned and undermined at every turn, serving as punching bags for all that has gone wrong during this pandemic," former CDC directors Jeffrey Koplan, Julie Gerberding, Richard Besser and Tom Frieden wrote in a joint op-ed on Thursday.
Meanwhile, officials involved in Operation Warp Speed from its early days concede that they’re dismayed by perceptions that the vaccine project is a failure. For much of 2020, they had safeguarded the effort from the political pressures that had warped the White House task force and led Azar to be shunted aside. They had gotten a nearly blank check from Trump — and convinced him, for the most part, to back off public pressure.
"For all the stories about ‘political interference in Warp Speed,’ how many vaccines did you see actually pushed out before the election? Zero," said one official. "We held the line."
"We had a lot of support on the protection of the integrity of Operation Warp Speed," added Brian Harrison, Azar’s chief of staff.
For Azar, who was at risk of being ousted from the administration last year, the vaccine initiative increasingly emerged as his flagship — a project that combined his years of experience as a government official who had devised national pandemic plans during the Bush administration with his background as a pharmaceutical executive, learning the levers that would speed up the industry’s production.
The health secretary, a privately religious man who regularly attended bible study with other Cabinet members before the pandemic, even saw divine intervention in his path from HHS to the private sector and back again.
"I think that God put me in this job at this time for this reason," Azar told POLITICO on Nov. 23. "Putting me in the drug industry where I got to see how R&D works and the financial incentives… Putting me here."
And even as Trump lost re-election and Biden prepared to take office, Trump’s deputies insisted that the Democrat moving into the White House would be inheriting a ready-made end to the Covid-19 crisis.
"Very clearly by January 20, this will be a mop-up operation," Mango predicted on Dec. 3. "All the heavy lifting will have been done. The flow of vaccines will have been out there for four to six weeks."
Yet as Inauguration Day approached, and the vaccine initiative sputtered, Biden’s team began complaining that Trump’s vaccine effort was a mess, failing on short-term shots and insufficient long-term planning. As a result, the president-elect is increasingly signaling he’ll opt for his own approach — asking for Operation Warp Speed’s top science adviser to step down, planning a restructured model and announcing his own plan — even as Trump officials rush to put the final stamp on theirs.
When Azar’s "MP2" plan first emerged last spring, there was no guarantee that the White House would even hear it out.
"It was a tough time for the secretary," said one ally, reflecting on the series of slights that had led to Azar being removed as coronavirus task force leader at the end of February and increasingly exiled to the Humphrey Building, the brutalist HHS headquarters at the foot of Capitol Hill. Azar also was still reeling from his own recent attempts to oust Seema Verma, the health department’s Medicare chief and Azar’s nominal deputy, a costly battle that had prompted Verma’s White House allies to turn on the HHS secretary and left Azar’s job status as an open question in Washington.
Under Vice President Mike Pence, the White House coronavirus task force continued to fight over the response, with health and economic officials feuding over issues like a potential ban on cruise ships while Trump himself threw out ever-wilder theories about how the virus would simply disappear. But when the president began musing about the prospect of developing a vaccine in less than a year — drawing the ire of fact checkers who suggested it couldn’t be done — Azar and his aides saw an opening for redemption.
"So much of the early Covid-19 response had gone wrong," said one official. "This was a chance to get the vaccine right."
"If you want to pick a date that I believe Operation Warp Speed, that the germination of it began, it was on March 27," said Mango, referencing external inquiries about the government’s new $450 million contract with Johnson & Johnson on Covid-19 vaccine development, a decision that took HHS leadership by surprise.
Azar "started asking some questions about, okay, we’re gonna invest almost a half a billion dollars in this company. What are we getting in return? And because of this, how much are they accelerating their ability to develop a vaccine?" Mango added. "And he was completely unfulfilled by the answer, as both of us were."
"We literally sat down that night, and he asked me to go get every contract we assigned that had anything to do with vaccines or therapeutics, so that we could review them and see how much of a sense of urgency was built into those contracts," Mango said. "And again, we were completely unfulfilled."
HHS officials convened a new advisory board for the secretary featuring the government’s top scientists — including National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, the CDC’s Nancy Messonnier and others — that met several times in early April, reviewing the initial development of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. In the eyes of senior officials, the government-funded efforts were haphazard and, in their eyes, not ambitious enough.
"It quickly became apparent that there was an opportunity here that we could be more proactive and actually push to fundamentally change these timelines," Azar said.
That belief crystallized in an HHS meeting on April 10, where Peter Marks, a top regulator at the Food and Drug Administration, argued for a sweeping effort to use the federal government’s powers and deep pockets, and officials openly discussed the idea of a second Manhattan Project that would rush Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, such as by simultaneously pursuing pharmaceutical development and manufacturing.
"Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry and worked on drug development, it’s very clear that there’s a lot of dead space in drug development," Marks said on an HHS podcast last year, discussing the Operation Warp Speed planning meetings. "Sometimes, there are ways to eliminate dead space… you can eliminate time between things."
By Monday April 13, the team had developed a PowerPoint that described their "MP2" vision, and Azar met with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner to pitch him on the plan.
"We are the country that put a man on the moon and returned them safely to Earth… We are the country that within three years developed an atomic weapon that won World War II," Azar said he told Kushner. "If we put the entire financial and human capital and private sector weight of this country behind it, we can get a vaccine by January 1."
Kushner was "completely supportive" of the project, Azar told POLITICO, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also threw his support behind the idea. The health secretary began a process of prospecting for new allies, quietly calling industry contacts to find potential drug-industry executives who could help steer the new initiative.
But this low-profile period was short-lived, as Azar and his team would soon be reeling from "nuclear-level attacks" on the public affairs front, said one official who works closely with the secretary.
First, an April 23 Wall Street Journal exposé pinned much of the blame for the nation’s Covid-19 failures on Azar’s leadership, saying that the secretary’s "early missteps" set back the U.S. response.
"[I]nterviews with more than two dozen administration officials and others involved in the government’s coronavirus effort show that Mr. Azar waited for weeks to brief the president on the threat, oversold his agency’s progress in the early days and didn’t coordinate effectively across the health-care divisions under his purview," the Journal concluded.
Hours later, Azar’s chief of staff Harrison came under fire after a Reuters article, "Former Labradoodle breeder was tapped to lead U.S. pandemic task force," attacked Harrison’s qualifications and handling of early Covid-19 meetings. The article became a national talking point, even as Harrison’s allies insisted that that the portrayal wasn’t fair and pointed to a Dallas Morning News column that challenged its claims.
"He had previously worked in government and started the breeding business because of family health issues, so he could work from home" said a former HHS official who worked with Harrison. "And he didn’t ‘lead the task force,’ though he scheduled meetings for it.”
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The news cycle would only worsen for HHS’ leaders: By that Saturday, Azar’s White House critics were weighing an attempt to push him out.
"It was an interesting weekend for me," Azar allowed, saying that he took "a very long walk in my neighborhood" — and used it as the moment to make the pitch for what became Operation Warp Speed.
Spending hours on his walk, Azar called officials like then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx and other senior officials, trying to convince them on his plan.
"I made the $3 trillion pitch, that we should be in an un-resource-constrained environment," Azar said. "We should put everything we have against this. It should be a whole of government approach. We should build a board of directors that involves us. And we can declare a goal of January 1 for a vaccine and move against that."
Azar said he won unanimous approval on the vaccine plan, and other officials said he shored up his once-tenuous standing while putting a new spotlight on his rivals. Four days later, Joe Grogan — Trump’s domestic policy chief and one of Azar’s fiercest critics — announced he was leaving the administration.
By that point, the name also had evolved past its "MP2" origins.
"We looked at the names, Peter [Marks] and I, and we realized that ‘Manhattan Project 2’ really didn’t connotate what we thought," said Robert Kadlec, the health department’s emergency and preparedness chief. "You know, building a bomb, it’s not developing the vaccine [although] it was the same level of effort."
"We looked for an alternative term that would be really catching one’s imagination, that would be more contemporary … and if you remember the scene from Star Trek, ‘to go where no man has gone before?’ " Kadlec added. "That’s really what we tried to capture."
Formalizing the initiative
Senior officials huddled again at the Pentagon on May 1, a small group that included Azar, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Kushner, and Adam Boehler, a former health official who led a U.S. international development agency and was a close Kushner ally, using the session to solidify their plan.
"It was what became Operation Warp Speed in terms of the rubber hitting in the road, how we’re doing this," said Harrison, who also attended the meeting, adding that HHS and Pentagon officials used the session to divvy up responsibilities. "We needed the muscle the Pentagon could provide — logistics, operations, contract and support. We had that all committed as well as the notional timelines."
The decision was also made: don’t repeat the mistakes that bogged down the White House coronavirus task force. That ad hoc effort, launched in January as the first Covid-19 cases where detected in the United States, sprawled to include dozens of senior officials and aides, with attendees complaining that the forum was unfocused as leaks constantly spilled into the press and Azar was ousted as leader.
Azar didn’t directly respond to questions about task force operations, but praised the structure of Warp Speed, which included a strict chain of command — leaning on the business and military backgrounds of many participants — and a small executive board that included the health and defense secretaries.
"We needed to be able to operate with complete dispatch and efficiency and nimbleness and authority," Azar said. "A board that could make decisions, do so quickly, and have those decisions stand and not be relitigated has been critical."
Meanwhile, HHS officials quickly moved forward on recruiting venture capitalist Moncef Slaoui as Warp Speed’s top scientific adviser and tapping other industry veterans like Carlo de Notaristefani to oversee the project’s manufacturing.
The health secretary also encouraged the team to approach the project as though money was no object, with the Operation Warp Speed team awarding billions of dollars as they placed bets on vaccine candidates, expecting that not all would quickly pan out. "It’s important to marshal this team to be in business what’s called a ‘big hairy audacious goal’ or ‘BHAG,’" Azar said.
Excluding the task force wasn’t well-received at the White House, with senior officials in the vice president’s office bristling that they weren’t included in the early Warp Speed discussions and quickly skeptical of the effort after news broke that it was underway.
"We were blindsided by it," said a former White House official involved in the task force. "They wouldn’t brief the task force on it… [just] a private briefing."
"That from day 1 set the tone for Warp Speed," the former official added. "It was dysfunction. It was just another shadow task force that popped up."
Even as vaccine development raced ahead across the summer and fall, other headaches emerged. Slaoui’s decision to join Operation Warp Speed as a contractor, rather than a special government employee — allowing him to steer billions of dollars in pharmaceutical spending while keeping millions of dollars in industry stock himself — drew fire and calls for an investigation from congressional Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The attacks rankled Trump administration officials, who called Slaoui a hero for joining the effort and warned that scrutiny of his stock holdings would delay a vaccine, which only sparked more criticism. In November, Trump fired Esper as defense secretary a week after the election, potentially putting the Warp Speed partnership between the health department and Pentagon at risk, although officials said that senior defense official Norquist ensured that collaboration continued.
Meanwhile, as the vaccines themselves drew closer, public health experts grew worried that there would be insufficient supply or resources for distribution. One public blow-up came after reports that the Trump administration had passed up an opportunity to secure millions of additional doses of Pfizer’s promising vaccine before the FDA authorized it last month.
"We fear this is yet another instance in which the Trump Administration’s failure to develop a comprehensive national vaccines plan in a timely manner could jeopardize efforts to get people vaccinated and ultimately end this pandemic," Senate Democrats wrote to Operation Warp Speed officials on Dec. 14.
In recent weeks, critics of Operation Warp Speed have increasingly been proven right, as the vaccine rollout has been plagued by a series of well-chronicled problems.
The Trump administration’s decision to punt much of the work of vaccine distribution to the states has left many local health officials overwhelmed, saying that they didn’t receive sufficient funding or resources to handle the work of administering doses. State leaders in December also announced that HHS had steadily lowered the total number of promised doses, prompting a war of words between governors and the Trump administration before Operation Warp Speed’s top logistics official apologized for misleading states and admitted the federal effort had wrongly inflated estimates.
“It was a planning error, and I am responsible,” Army Gen. Gustave Perna said last month. “We’re learning from it. We’re trying to get better.”
Inside the administration, officials insist that some of the operational challenges don’t rest with Operation Warp Speed but separate efforts that fell to the CDC. The Atlanta-based public health agency has been at odds with HHS for much of the pandemic — with Trump appointees seeking to muzzle CDC scientists and change the agency’s reports — and the vaccine rollout prompted new tensions, despite a somewhat different cast of officials involved.
"CDC made it very clear that they owned working with the states on the last mile of getting people vaccinated — that was their turf," said one HHS official closely involved in the vaccine project. As a result, CDC ended up playing a major role in determining how vaccines should be prioritized, making recommendations that have guided states’ own strategies.
While CDC officials have complained that HHS interference has made it harder to accomplish their mission during Covid-19, department leaders say that they’ve only tried to push the science-focused agency to be more operational.
"In June, they wanted to send out the H1N1 playbook to the states with literally the title changed," the official added, referring to the years-old guidance that was used to fight a decade-old pandemic. "While there were plenty of good ideas in there, rubber-stamping that was not a good idea." HHS instead held back the agency’s vaccine-distribution playbook until September for reviews and changes, sparking complaints within CDC that valuable time was lost, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
"The CDC needs to stop treating ‘who’s getting the vaccine next’ like they’re announcing a beauty pageant," said another HHS official, who pointed to one agency slide session from December about allocating vaccine doses. "Is that clear or is mud clearer?"
Azar himself has grown frustrated with CDC, said a person who’s spoken with him, saying that the health secretary believes the agency’s approach allowed states to be "overly prescriptive" in administering vaccines, slowing the process down.
Amid the clamor to speed up the pace of shots, Azar cloistered himself in recent days at Camp David, revising vaccine plans and dealing with a new, last-minute complication: the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, fueled by Trump’s rhetoric that the presidential election was "stolen." The crisis prompted fellow Trump appointees like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to resign, and senior officials to weigh the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment to take power away from Trump.
"I’m committed — I’ve wrestled with this — I’m committed to see this through in my role as health secretary during a pandemic, to ensure that vaccines and therapeutics get out to the American people and to ensure a smooth hand-off to President Biden’s team," Azar said on ABC’s "Good Morning America" on Tuesday, pressed over his response to Trump’s comments.
On Jan. 12, the health secretary announced an overhaul of vaccine distribution, saying that the administration would quickly ship more doses instead of keeping some in reserve, expressing confidence that the pace of production had improved. "We are releasing the entire supply we have for order by states, rather than holding second doses in physical reserve," Azar said.
But that move — initially welcomed by state leaders, who began to plan for a vaccine surge — has only sparked a new round of recriminations, with governors surprised to learn that the federal reserve is effectively exhausted and there aren’t any additional doses to come.
"I am demanding answers from the Trump Administration," tweeted Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Friday morning. "This is a deception on a national scale. Oregon’s seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us."
The health department rushed to clarify its stance, with Azar saying on NBC News on Friday night that "there’s not a reserve stockpile" and that the department was just announcing its updated policy to move more quickly.
Health officials also have said that some of their goals have been mischaracterized in the media, with Azar claiming to NBC on Friday that "we said we would have doses available for 20 million people," not 20 million people vaccinated.
"Because we didn’t control the shots in the arms, we never had that internal goal," a person with knowledge of Azar’s thinking said, adding that the internal goal was 20 million available doses. "That became a narrative and a way to attack an incredible sensitive project and that bothers him because that was never the intention."
However, Azar and other officials expressly promised "20 million vaccinations" by the end of December.
The Trump team’s projections of total doses manufactured and distributed across December and January also were “wildly off-target,” concluded Yale University health policy professor Jason Schwartz.
The shifting expectations and patchwork policies have unsettled public health experts, and the incoming Biden administration has pledged to be more aggressive on vaccinations than the last.
“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure thus far,” Biden said in a speech on Thursday, teasing his own Covid-19 plan. “We’ll have to move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated, to create more places for them to get vaccinated, to mobilize more medical teams, to get shots in people’s arms, to increase vaccine supply and to get it out the door as fast as possible.”
Outside analysts say that the situation in the United States may not be as dire as the politically charged rhetoric suggests.
Grading the Trump administration’s performance "has to take into account how other countries are doing," HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn wrote on Friday. "It turns out the U.S. is faring pretty well, relatively speaking. In fact, shots are getting into arms faster than in most of Western Europe, at least according to the available data."
"The crazy thing here is how much has gone right," insisted Michael Pratt, Operation Warp Speed’s chief communications officer, on Thursday. "The vaccines were developed within a year. There are tens of millions of doses now available. More than 11 million people are reported as having the vaccine… [and] it’s better than the data shows."
"The fact of the matter is it represented the best of American science and biotechnology, and it was the work of hundreds of thousands of people to get us into this position," said Kadlec, the health department’s preparedness chief. "This is what America was made of."