Mixed Signals on Department of Defense Vaccine Distribution, Role in Research Praised

Aug 2, 2020 |  Social Determinants of Health, Department of Defense, Military, News, US DOD, Vaccine Distribution

Mixed Signals on Department of Defense Vaccine Distribution, Role in Research Praised

According to a July 30 Politico report, “Vaccine distribution will be ‘joint venture’ between CDC and Pentagon.” This will break with longstanding precedent wherein CDC, “distributes vaccines during major outbreaks through a centralized system.” A senior administration official has said that DOD “is handling all the logistics of getting the vaccines to the right place, at the right time, in the right condition.” They added that “CDC will remain in charge of tracking any side effects that emerge post-vaccination and ‘some of the communications through the state relationships [and] the state public health organizations.’” The plan calls for the Pentagon to guide distribution logistics and also to help with manufacturing and “kitting” vaccine packs. If needed, DOD can step in and, “actually physically deliver items itself.” 

No Request for Distribution, but DOD Nets Feds 100 Million Doses

In a possible sign of dissension, McClatchy has reported that, “neither the White House nor Warp Speed officials had formally asked the Pentagon to help with vaccine distribution.” And an HHS official is reported to have said that DOD involvement, “would be the exception, not the norm.” State and local officials have already raised concerns about using new methods for vaccine distribution. In June, the Associate of State and Territorial Health Officials wrote that CDC, “already leads and maintains a highly effective system of vaccine ordering and distribution.” They also say, “With time of the essence we strongly recommend against designing new and untested systems of vaccine distribution.” The group also added concern that military involvement could, “undermine already shaky public confidence in the vaccines.” In a report from HHS, “HHS, DOD Collaborate with Novavax to Produce Millions of COVID-19 Investigational Vaccine Doses in Commercial-Scale Manufacturing Demonstration Projects,” a joint venture “announced a $1.6 billion agreement with Novavax, Inc. of Gaithersburg, Maryland, to demonstrate commercial-scale manufacturing of the company’s COVID-19 investigational vaccine.” As a result, the federal government will own, “the 100 million doses of investigational vaccine expected to result from the demonstration projects.”

DARPA Has Long Record of Supporting Pathogen Research

More DOD involvement in the coronavirus pandemic is noted in the Washington Post’s July 30 piece, “How a secretive Pentagon agency seeded the ground for a rapid coronavirus cure.” The Defense Advanced Research Project Administration’s (DARPA) Amy Jenkins, who is manager of their antibody program, says that, “We have been thinking about and preparing for this for a long time, and it’s almost a bit surreal.” The antibody program is called Pandemic Prevention Platform or P3. DARPA has been quietly preparing for “a rapid cure for a pathogen like covid-19 for years.” Over a decade ago, DARPA launched a plan to find “super-fast ways to protect American troops if they were to confront a deadly new virus in the field.” This first two covid-19 vaccines to enter trials were funded by DARPA, and P3, “has already led to the world’s first study in humans of a covid-19 antibody treatment. While it normally takes four to ten years to get a vaccine to the public. Sometimes it takes years to discover and produce antibodies. 

James Crowe Jr., who directs the vaccine center at Vanderbilt University, says of DARPA, “I think their role is very important.” He follows up, “The reason is they have catalyzed more rapid progression than otherwise would have happened. And the reason they accomplished it was they were willing to state . . . grand challenges.” When, back in 2017, DARPA put out a request for a system, “that could produce a human-ready antibody from a convalescent blood sample in 60 days,” Crowe and his cohorts laughed. But after first telling himself, “That’s ridiculous,” he soon moved on to, “Well, how close could it get?” After the 2001 anthrax attacks, DARPA moved to, “invest in faster ways to respond, including technology to accelerate vaccine development, spot emerging viruses and speed up pharmaceutical manufacturing.”

Critics Note Past Failures

According to Barron’s from May 17, “The Pentagon Is Leading an Effort to Find a Vaccine. It’s a Mistake.” This piece argues that while it is normal for the military to support research, between having to protect its own soldiers from the virus and its primary mission of warfare (in the colloquial, the mission is usually stated as to “take out the enemy”), DOD has its hands full. Since the vaccine effort is global, would the military or other DOD operations  be an optimized overseer for distribution and ongoing management of the process? Some military missteps are noted: unfinished hospital projects in the US and Iraq and building 11 medical clinics to fight Ebola in 2014 that only treated 28 patients (to be fair, by the time the clinics were complete the disease was waning). 

On the other hand, undoubtedly serious challenges are getting uncovered in the existing federal government response to COVID-19, hence perhaps it is a correct assumption to consider shaking things up and placing a more command and control-minded organization, such as those out of the DOD, in place to drive superior results?

TrialSite News will continue to report on DOD involvement in the COVID-19 response. On balance, it seems that while the logistical talents and research resources of the military are a key part of our fight, the esthetic and socio-political implications of, e.g., soldiers with syringes, could lead to an uncomfortable fit with American tradition and culture. On the other hand, the American public demand results and the military culture is less forgiving of failure than perhaps other federally-funded groups.

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