The Trump Administration is moving to give the Department of Defense control over logistics in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, a move that infectious disease experts describe as “unprecedented.”
“The DOD is handling all the logistics of getting the vaccines to the right place at the right time in the right condition,” one Trump administration official told reporters on Thursday, saying that the “great, vast resources of the Department of Defense” would help get the job done.
The move, first reported by Politico, came as part of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s effort to put the gas on the development and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But experts expressed shock at the decision to take away the CDC’s longtime role as distributor of vaccines in past outbreaks and move that responsibility to the Pentagon.
“It’s totally unprecedented,” Dr. Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in charge of the epidemiology program, told TPM. “When we developed the H1N1 vaccine, they were the entity that took care of getting it out to all the different municipalities and areas of the U.S. that needed it.”
Hassig added that the CDC is the only federal agency with connections to all local public health departments, “who are the on-the-ground coordinators for public health interventions.”
Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director under President Obama, expressed skepticism about the move in a Friday tweet saying that “DOD has zero experience sending vaccines to doctors in the US.”
Distributing a vaccine will be complex. During the H1N1 pandemic, an unheralded success was delivery of vaccines through the robust infrastructure of the Vaccines For Children program. DOD has zero experience sending vaccines to doctors in the US. https://t.co/xojdkGgCz9
— Dr. Tom Frieden (@DrTomFrieden) July 31, 2020
Trump administration officials briefing reporters about the move on Thursday described the plan as a “hybrid” operation between the CDC and DOD.
Under the approach, the CDC will be tasked with tracking patients and those vaccinated, communications around the vaccine, and dealing with the states.
The DOD will handle logistics, an official said, incorporating some IT structures that the CDC has operated for vaccinations in the past while adding new ones.
“It’s not just the logistics of distribution, it’s the logistics of manufacturing, the logistics of preparing for manufacturing as well,” the official said, adding that the Pentagon will help assemble vaccines into a kit.
Hassig, the Tulane epidemiologist, said that the DOD could conceivably be used for assembling vaccination kits. But, she added, the broader picture of the military taking the lead over a civilian public health agency came as a shock.
“Does the Pentagon have connections with every single health department around the country?” Hassig asked.
Another administration official on the call said that the Trump administration was looking to the military to take over because it “excel[s] at operational planning.”
The final vaccines that will be distributed to inoculate the U.S. population from COVID-19 have yet to be decided, with key characteristics of the vaccines like dosage, storage temperature, and effectiveness across different age groups still unknown.
The official argued that the military can plan for any scenario, making it a perfect fit to manage a naturally uncertain situation.
“I hope the American public can be reassured — I don’t see how we can work out the details more than we have been,” the official said, adding that it would allow the Trump administration “to address all of those different contingencies based on the vaccine as we learn which vaccine works best for which type of person.”
“There’s not an Operation Warp Speed Team, a CDC team — we are one U.S. Government, one team,” the official added later on in the call.
To Gary Slutkin, a former WHO epidemiologist who fought AIDS outbreaks in Africa, the decision to cast the Pentagon in a lead role also came as a surprise.
Slutkin said that the military had proven useful in the past for helping combat epidemics in countries that lack basic infrastructure, by sending hospital ships or building airfields. But in the U.S., he said, the situation is different.
“We have airplanes and trucks and cars and we have hospitals and even Walgreens and CVS, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “It raises a lot of questions as to why are people other than health people handling a health problem?”