REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama—A U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command employee had a unique opportunity to contribute to the Operation Warp Speed mission on a 90-day detail assignment.
Lisa Simunaci, an inspector with the AMCOM Inspector General office, recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she assisted U.S. Army Materiel Command Public Affairs Team Lead Kim Hanson in providing public affairs support to the historic operation.
Although she was assigned as an inspector with the AMCOM IG office in the summer of 2020, Simunaci has an extensive public affairs background, having worked in that capacity at AMCOM, AMC and the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. She was asked to use that expertise as part of a small team at Operation Warp Speed.
“Operation Warp Speed was charged with accelerating the development and delivery of a safe and effective vaccine to the American people,” said Simunaci. “Its goal to do that in less than a year was unprecedented – so the effort and pace were intense.”
About 100 members of the DOD, including 75 service members from all branches and DOD civilians, shared that mission. The public affairs efforts included strategic messaging, media relations and virtual community events that connected leaders with large groups that could help spread the message.
“With Operation Warp Speed, everybody heard, ‘fast,’ but fast doesn’t always translate to safe,” she said. “Our efforts focused largely on explaining the process and highlighting the role science and data played in each step – from research and development to manufacturing and distribution.”
The Operation Warp Speed approach was a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense. Led by former AMC Commander Gen. Gus Perna and scientific advisor Moncef Slaoui, the operation harnessed government and industry efforts in support of the common goal.
Simunaci explained Operation Warp Speed’s method included running the traditional vaccine-development steps in parallel. For instance, manufacturing was taking place as clinical trials were going on – paving the way to have the product ready if and when the Food and Drug Administration granted Emergency Use Authorization.
Conducting steps in parallel rather than sequential involved taking a financial risk, which the government acknowledged, Simunaci said. But it was one worth taking with so much at stake.
“While financial risk was acceptable, risks to safety were not,” she said. “When it comes to safety, there is meticulous adherence to the gold-standard, set by the Food and Drug Administration. That was never a question.”
Simunaci said she learned a lot about vaccine development during her assignment, but what she really learned about was leadership.
“Watching high-level leaders making on-the-spot decisions that had such a huge impact was awe-inspiring and a window most people don’t get a chance to look through.”
While Operation Warp Speed was a government-led mission, Simunaci said its “whole-of –America” approach exposed the best of the country and built on the successes of business and industry.
“I know from the Army logistics world that our leaders have always looked to successful companies to see how their lessons can translate to the military,” she said. “We saw how FedEx, UPS and large pharmacy chains joined the effort – and for every company you see front and center, there are several more behind the scenes contributing to the cause.”
She said her other takeaway was the power of a dedicated team.
“Everybody wanted to be there, and everybody was giving 110%. We all had the sense this was about saving lives and getting us past this pandemic.”
While she spent 90 days on the team, Simunaci said most members have been there since the beginning and will stay until the operation’s end.
“That team is working hard in support of a herculean effort to help get us back to normal,” she said.
Along with the companies, tens of thousands of Americans rolled up their sleeves to volunteer for clinical trials.
“These were the real heroes,” she said, noting the COVID-19 vaccine trials were some of the largest trials on record, with each recruiting at least 30,000 participants.
In addition to vaccines, she said Operation Warp Speed had a similar mission with therapeutics, resulting in several life-saving treatments now available across the country.
Simunaci said she and others realized they were on the frontlines of a historic event, especially when the focus shifted from rehearsals to reality.
Although she has been back at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, for less than a month, she said she still vividly remembers that December day when the trucks rolled out, loaded with the first doses of the vaccine that would significantly impact the months-long pandemic that had gripped the world.
“You can’t imagine it,” she said. “To witness months of anticipation, planning and preparation culminate in the first trucks rolling - it was a breathtaking moment for everybody involved. All of this hard work, finally rolling down American streets, destined for American arms. That was such a sense of pride.”
As vaccines continue to roll out across the country, Simunaci stressed patience during the process.
“Rather than wait until 300 million vaccines are available, the government is pushing out the product as fast as it is being produced,” she explained. “We must recognize that demand exceeds supply. We see reports that vaccine sites are ‘running out’ – and that’s good. It means they are administering every available vaccine. Vaccines are allocated and distributed every week.”
Simunaci said it was an enormous honor to be a part of the experience and recognizes she was a very small piece of a very large, historic puzzle. While she would absolutely volunteer to do it again, she said she hopes she never has to.