The rapid development and availability of COVID-19 vaccines—as well as new medicines to treat and tests to diagnose the deadly disease—were the result of the federal government quickly stepping up to confront the crisis, spending billions of dollars and working collaboratively with private pharmaceutical and medical device industries.
This dynamic effort was led by a team from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority headed by Gary Disbrow. The BARDA team made key decisions early in the process to invest in every aspect of the basic science, the preclinical development and clinical trials for the vaccines, and other medicines and diagnostic tests. The team also executed procurement contracts that were critical to quickly bringing these medical countermeasures to the public.
“Because of this team’s ability to work together, across departments and with the private sector, we’ve had the fastest vaccines available for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic; we’ve had therapeutics available to all Americans free of charge; we’ve had a medicine cabinet for each variant that came along; and we have 300 million over-the-counter tests available every month compared to none before,” said Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Starting with the first reports of COVID-19, BARDA’s Incident Management Team was activated to rapidly develop medical countermeasures. Along with Disbrow, members include Robert Johnson, who engaged with the pharmaceutical companies regarding vaccine development; Kimberly Armstrong, who specialized in bringing COVID-19 therapeutics to the public; and Rodney Wallace, who focused on ensuring reliable COVID-19 diagnostic tests were being developed and brought to the marketplace.
“Have you gotten vaccinated against COVID-19? Have you used a rapid test or a PCR test? Have you or someone in your family received a monoclonal antibody treatment or an antiviral?” asked Christy Ventura, a microbiologist and scientific program manager at BARDA. “If the answer to any of those questions is yes, these people are the reason that happened.”
The team leveraged existing and established new public-private partnerships, using BARDA’s flexible and nimble authorities, multiyear funding, cutting-edge expertise and innovative technologies.
“They have the underlying programmatic expertise, understand how to run a program and they have the technical knowledge, the scientists and the folks who understand the regulatory process,” said Dr. Jason Roos, the chief operating officer for the Department of Health and Human Services Coordination Operations and Response Element.
Johnson said that in working with the pharmaceutical and diagnostic testing companies, the BARDA team had to be nimble and make adjustments in direction and with federal investments as the nature of the disease changed.
“Nobody can predict what is going to happen tomorrow, so the team had to constantly adapt,” Johnson said.
A critical component was meeting with potential industry partners to assess their technologies and capabilities. In total, more than $64 billion was awarded to develop and procure medical countermeasures for COVID-19.
As of April 14, 2022, 713 million vaccine doses had been delivered, 567 million doses had been administered to the public and another 130 million doses had been delivered globally. By that date, more than 228 million diagnostic tests and 8.2 million therapeutics also had been distributed in the United States.
“The team’s strong leadership, scientific rigor, deep understanding of medical countermeasure development, key investments and exceptional dedication to public health provided the nation with the tools needed to diagnose, treat and prevent COVID-19,” Ventura said.
The challenges for the team went beyond medicine and tests to insuring there also would be sufficient capacity of various medical supplies.
“You hear about the Pfizer and Moderna, but there are all the vial companies and the needles and syringes, all the enabling tools just to get the vaccines out, and you have the same problem with therapeutics and diagnostics,” Roos said. “When the pandemic hit, Gary recognized how we needed to surge up capacity quickly in order to get contracts in place and round out the team with the acquisition support to go after the multitude of suppliers that we’ve worked with.”
Linda Lambert, a deputy director at BARDA, said Disbrow is “the glue that holds the organization together.”
“Gary has a tremendous aptitude for understanding science across all the programs we support,” Lambert said. “He is an inclusive and thoughtful leader. I have never worked for someone who is as caring about the team getting recognition for their own leadership.”
Disbrow said the work was difficult, but “a total team effort” and extremely gratifying because it helped save countless lives. He said Wallace, Armstrong, Johnson and their teams were dedicated to collaborating with and funding companies to bring safe and effective vaccines, medicines and diagnostic tests to the market as soon as possible.
“The simple fact is that this was a no-fail mission. We had to do this and we had to do it right,” Disbrow said.