How Free Markets Helped Operation Warp Speed Deliver Vaccines in Record Time

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Early on in the pandemic, we praised the private industry. Businesses’ ability to adapt to challenges and scale products awed the country. Those of us who claim that private industry can solve problems better than the government felt particularly vindicated. 

As reports showed egregious fumbles by the FDA and CDC in early testing, private labs stepped up to the plate to create tests of their own. 3M ramped up production of personal protective equipment, which was augmented by production shifts from HP and MyPillow. Companies such as General Motors and Dyson (the vacuum maker) produced ventilators and other life-saving machines. In a stroke of brilliance, distilleries began producing hand sanitizer. 

Now, the focus has shifted to vaccination, and the press has turned its attention to the government. While it is true that mass vaccination will require Heraclean efforts by federal, state, and local governments, the vaccines are just as much testaments to the merits of free markets as the above-mentioned efforts to curb the virus’s impact. 

Two of the most efficacious COVID-19 vaccines (those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna) use mRNA. Just a few years ago, mRNA was not an abbreviation seen much outside of college biology classes. Now, every week has at least a few headlines containing those letters.  Its current popularity belies a past full of obscurity, with only a handful of researchers convinced that it could one day be useful. 

We all know our cells have DNA in their core, but what puzzled scientists was how the information stored in DNA was used to build proteins. Scientists discovered that our cells use an intermediary called mRNA that copies the information contained in DNA and carries it to ribosomes for protein production. The great hope was that injecting cells with artificial mRNA could teach the body to repair itself.

Researchers like Katalin Karikó thought that this idea was worth pursuing, but many of the experts along the way disagreed. In fact, a decade of fruitless efforts to obtain grants for her research prompted her superiors at UPenn to give Karikó an ultimatum in the mid 90’s: leave or be demoted. She stayed and accepted the pay cut.

It took another decade before mRNA became a viable option for medial development thanks to Karikó’s partnership with immunologist Drew Weissman. Then, another five years passed before the commercial development of drugs using the technology started in 2010. Now, mRNA is going to save millions of lives, hasten a resurgence of jobs and well-being, and usher in a return to normalcy. 

The lesson here is that solutions to our problems come from unexpected places. We rarely know what obstacles will arise in the first place, but even less predictable is the route by which salvation will arrive. This is something no one—I repeat, no one—can effectively predict. Humans are just too limited to do it. 

In his masterwork, The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek wrote that omniscience would remove the case for freedom. If we knew everything, we wouldn’t need to be free to experiment and progress because we would already know which methods are the best. It is precisely because we know so little, can predict so little that we must allow each person to decide what to do with his or her resources. Individuals are, after all, in the best position to make decisions about their own lives.

Contrary to many “experts,” we cannot effectively plan economies. They are products of what Hayek called “spontaneous order,” and they are far more efficient at adapting to change than government agencies staffed by bureaucrats who are insulated from the very information they would need to make good decisions. 

Throughout the pandemic, it has consistently been government failings that have prolonged suffering. Whether it be regulations that prevented testing or rules that kept distilleries from producing hand sanitizer, the FDA’s record is marred by failure after failure. The so-called public health luminary, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has pivoted more times than a political pundit on everything from masks to school openings.

This reminds one of William F. Buckley’s famous quip that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard. Government panels of experts, such as McNamara’s Whiz Kids or the geniuses behind Pruitt-Igoe, have done yeoman’s work to ruin lives. That includes advocates of widespread lockdowns that run contra to the best evidence we have.

President Trump’s administration deserves ample credit for its decentralized approach.  Operation Warp Speed in particular is a lesson for policymakers. It does not rely on a board of experts to plan the vaccine process. It offers funding to companies so that they face no downside to putting all their eggs in the COVID basket. The private industry was allowed to do what it does best: use information that the government does not and cannot acquire to achieve a better outcome.

This is not, of course, a good strategy for long-term economic flourishing. Putting all one’s eggs in a single basket can only be justified on moral and economic grounds when a severe emergency arises. If the government always incentivized such behavior, they would be acting as if they knew which experiments would work out and knew what the benefits of freedom would be.

Even Operation Warp Speed was a risk, but it was one worth taking given the circumstances. If mRNA had not been developed so extensively, the process would have failed or played out much differently. If HIV researchers had not been working on mapping antigens, the same holds true. What made it good policy was that it prioritized private innovation rather than public planning.

A key goal for us as conservatives in the coming months and years is to fight the growing narrative that the government is the party responsible for the rapid vaccine development. These historic vaccines are due to the efficiency of market forces. Let us not forget that.

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