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Group outlines lessons learned from COVID pandemic in new report


The United States is moving on from COVID - at least, the federal government is. Two weeks ago, President Biden officially ended the national emergency that was declared during the pandemic. After previous national emergencies, Congress has created independent commissions to investigate, issue a report on lessons learned - the 9/11 Commission, for example. That hasn't happened for COVID. The closest we have is a report out today by the nonpartisan COVID Crisis Group. It's titled, Lessons from the COVID War. Philip Zelikow is the group's director and the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission. I spoke with him today about the report's key findings.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: The key to this crisis and the key to what went wrong was we weren't really ready to meet an emergency. We had the best science. We were willing to spend the most money. That wasn't the problem. The problem was in knowing what to do and being ready to do it. I think the reason we wrote the report was so that people would actually have a better idea of what you really need to do in an emergency like this. And I think anyone reading this report will just say to themselves, oh, I think I understand this now.

KELLY: The report runs hundreds of pages, so we're not going to be able to get at every choice and every decision that officials and leaders were grappling with, but I want to focus on one of them, which was Operation Warp Speed, because you all spent a lot of time on this. This was the Trump administration program to develop a vaccine - and fast - as the name suggests. My read is that you all concluded whatever other mistakes the Trump administration made during the pandemic, Operation Warp Speed - getting a vaccine - this was a success.

ZELIKOW: It was a success. Actually, President Trump, himself, had almost nothing to do with it. I think we have the best account of the origins of Warp Speed that's available in print right now, and we kind of explain what it is about it that actually worked and also what about it really didn't work.

KELLY: What about the politics of it? I remember interviewing the chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui.

ZELIKOW: Dr. Slaoui?

KELLY: Yes, Dr. Slaoui. Back in 2020, there were all kinds of questions over whether then-President Trump was rushing to get a vaccine, rushing to get good news out there and announce it. You know, hallelujah, we're saved, like, right before the election in 2020. Did you find politics were in play?

ZELIKOW: Well, politics are always in play when you're developing health decisions for hundreds of millions of people, and politics were in play here too. Actually, the remarkable thing about Warp Speed was that it was relatively insulated from the cronyism and chaos that characterized so much of the Trump administration. It was insulated partly because a lot of it was lodged in the Department of Defense. And actually, we give some credit to the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who helped to insulate the program's management from some of his colleagues in the administration who would have interfered more with it.

KELLY: I'm thinking about how top health officials, public health officials talked about the vaccine, how they messaged and communicated. What lessons did you take away from that that we might apply next time?

ZELIKOW: Well, the communication was terrible (laughter), if I may be blunt. For example, Operation Warp Speed did such a very good job on manufacturing and distribution, it never created a campaign to persuade people to use the vaccines. And we also discovered that where those campaigns worked - and some of them did - it wasn't because of where you get a bunch of people in Washington cutting public service announcements, telling people what to do. What the persuasive efforts that worked - and people did some of this - is where you actually reached out to leaders in local communities, whether it was nonprofit efforts to work through the American Farm Bureau Federation in rural communities or to work through urban communities through churches or other community leaders. And actually, some of those efforts worked quite well in persuading people to use the vaccine. But in general, at a national level, the communication efforts were poor and actually those problems extended on into the Biden administration as well.

KELLY: Hmm. So I hear you saying, you know, there are lessons learned. I hear you saying, we need to do this better next time. How are you thinking about getting traction for this report? This is a long and dense report on a serious subject that a lot of people, frankly, are tired of thinking about.

ZELIKOW: The main way you get action, actually, is for people to begin to see what can be done. Once they see what preparedness really looks like and what it means, then they begin to see, ah, this isn't hopeless. It's actually possible to do stuff here. One of the members of our group told me last week - she was rereading the report, and she said rereading it actually made her feel empowered because it's impossible to read through this and not get a sense of, oh, I see what can be done.

KELLY: That is Philip Zelikow, professor of history at the University of Virginia, former executive director of the 9/11 Commission and now with the COVID Crisis Group. Thanks so much for sharing this new report with us. We appreciate your time.

ZELIKOW: Oh, thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.