Operation Warp Speed Organizational Chart: Military in the Lead?

Operation Warp Speed Organizational Chart Military in the Lead
Operation Warp Speed chart

In May, President Trump declared that Operation Warp Speed was, “unlike anything our county has seen since the Manhattan Project.” While lacking the scale and secrecy of that prior government project, “Operation Warp Speed is largely an abstraction in Washington, with little known about who works there other than its top leaders, or how it operates. Even pharmaceutical companies hoping to offer help or partnerships have labored to figure out who to contact.” Now, a labyrinthine chart dated July 30, gives the biggest public picture to date of OWS, “a highly structured organization in which military personnel vastly outnumber civilian scientists.” The Chart, as outlined by Stat News on September 28, “shows that roughly 60 military officials — including at least four generals — are involved in the leadership of Operation Warp Speed, many of whom have never worked in health care or vaccine development. Just 29 of the roughly 90 leaders on the chart aren’t employed by the Department of Defense; most of them work for the Department of Health and Human Services and its subagencies.”

300 Million Doses, Classified Information

OWS’ goal is to distribute (not to mention develop and produce) 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January, and Paul Mango who is HHS’ deputy chief for policy indicates that the “military is intimately involved.” Reminiscent of the “Seabees,” the military has flown in equipment and materials “from all over the world” to support over two dozen manufacturing plants. Also, it has built up a large cyber and physical security infrastructure to make certain that a vaccine is protected from, “state actors who don’t want us to be successful at this,” according to Mango. He adds that many OWS meetings are, “in protected rooms used to discuss classified information.” Mango went on, “This is a massive scientific and logistical undertaking–We are weeks away, at most, a month or two away from having at least one safe and effective vaccine.”

The initiative’s contacts for vaccine-distribution questions are General Paul Ostrowski and CDC’s Nancy Messonier, though the later reports to the former. Trump almost fired Messonier for being “alarmist” about COVID-19. Ostrowski is the contact in charge of distribution, while reportedly he defers to Messonier on public health specific questions. This high level of military involvement is different from past pandemics; e.g. they were only tangentially involved in the H1N1 pandemic of 2009.  But, “Military personnel won’t be familiar with the health resources available in a community,” according to John Auerbach, the CEO of Trust for America’s Health, a group close with public health departments. “They don’t know who the doctors are or where the community health centers are located or what resources they have. They don’t know where the pharmacies are. Public health people do know, that’s part of what they do.”

Secrecy Needed for Security

Mango says that some personnel information has been kept secret due to worry about the, “security of the entire vaccine supply chain, from the warehouses storing vaccines to the computer systems being used to coordinate the effort.” He added that most OWS scientists work for the private firms the program is funding. “There’s really not a need for anyone to place scores of scientists inside HHS or DOD to get this done,” Mango added. “Quite honestly, we are not conducting any science whatsoever inside the government to support Operation Warp Speed, none.” He also queried, “There are quite honestly certain logistical elements of this that the CDC has never, ever been asked to do, and why not bring the best logisticians in the world into the equation?”  

OWS has agreements with six drug firms working on COVID-19 vaccines at present, per its chief advisor Moncef Slaoui. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security director Tom Inglesby, “agreed that the initiative appears well-positioned to achieve its ambitious goals—and under a tight timeline.”  He added, “There is deep knowledge of science and on how to manage complex government operations—It’s clearly operating in a challenging pandemic and political environment, and we won’t know if we have a safe and effective vaccine until the trials are finished. But it’s a highly competent group of people working to make it happen.” Despite HHS Secretary Azar and Defense Secretary Esper being the titular heads of OWS, “the two key leaders are Slaoui, the formal civilian leader of the project, and Gen. Gustave Perna, the military lead who is the chief operating officer for Operation Warp Speed.” 

Organization is “Confusing for Sure”

The organization of OWS is, “confusing for sure,” said Robert Huckman, chair of Harvard Business School’s health-care initiative, “who studies health care management and organization.” Huckman said the chart was more complex than most. “It is more complex, but it’s a more complex endeavor, too … it may be that it simply reflects the complexity of what Operation Warp Speed is trying to do.” Perna, a four-star general who has managed the Army’s logistics, is in the service’s “logistics hall of fame.” Recently he was head of Army Material Command, whose motto is: “If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, communicates with it, or eats it — AMC provides it.” Below him, civilian and military experts include Ostrowski, “a former special forces soldier” in charge of supply and distribution of a vaccine.


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