It should be emphasized that OWS was launched to almost universal skepticism and even scorn. At the time of OWS’s launch in Spring 2020, a strong consensus prevailed among media, public-health experts, consultants, and betting markets that regulatory approval by the end of 2020 and the accelerated delivery of 300 million doses were unrealistic goals. Consider some typical examples:
The June 6, 2020 issue of the medical journal Lancet opined that “on average, it takes 10 years to develop a vaccine. With the COVID-19 crisis looming, everyone is hoping that this time will be different. Although many infectious disease experts argue … even 18 months for a first vaccine is an incredibly aggressive schedule.”
The federal government’s top COVID advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, joined the skeptics: In February 2020 and again in April 2020 he predicted that a year to a year and a half would be required for vaccine approval — versus the half year that was actually required.
The media echoed general skepticism about OWS in the Spring of 2020. Vanity Fair in its May 28, 2020 edition characterized OWS “as dangerous and likely to fail.” CNN complained that OWS neglected “tried and true” procedures for vaccine development in favor of new and untested methods. A New York Times article dated April 30, 2020 somberly states: “Our record for developing an entirely new vaccine is at least four years — more time than the public or the economy can tolerate social-distancing orders.”
Similar skepticism was expressed by McKinsey Consulting. In its June 1, 2020 COVID report, McKinsey warned that only one vaccine had started phase 2 clinical trials and that 21 months has been the shortest time between phase 2 and 3.
Prediction and betting markets were also wagering as late as July 15, 2020 against timely approval. One of the largest public prediction markets put the odds of approval by January 2021 at less than one in three and that the best chance was after the first quarter of 2021. Another major online prediction market put the chances of a vaccine being mass-produced before January 2021 at one in five.
OWS’s critics did more than cast doubt on the FDA approval date. They also cast doubt on the ability of OWS to scale up production: Dr. Fauci cautioned that an additional year could be required to scale up production “to get enough doses to be meaningful to anyone.” In its June 1, 2020 COVID report, McKinsey warned that it usually takes five years to build a production facility for an entirely new virus vaccine.
Thus, the actual history of OWS diverges dramatically from that anticipated by its skeptics at the time it was launched. Based on their knowledge as of Spring 2020, experts, media, public health officials, and betting markets predicted FDA approval, at best, near spring or summer of 2021 (versus the actual approval in December 2020). They warned of the possibility of at least another year to scale up to large orders. In other words, our “specialists” grossly underestimated the power of OWS to accelerate vaccine approval, manufacturing, and distribution.
The New York Times recently fact-checked President Biden’s characterization of the Trump OWS program as too little, too late. Biden was particularly critical of the vaccine roll-out, not noting that the states and communities were responsible. Ignoring the speedy FDA approval and guaranteed orders to scale-up production, Biden promised a “new and improved” COVID-vaccination program that seems to me to be identical to Trump’s OWS. Notable is the nuanced fact-checker language: “… contrary to Mr. Biden’s suggestions, both administrations deserve credit for the current state of the vaccine supply.”