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Build Back the State

In promising to "build back better" from the pandemic, US President Joe Biden has certainly struck the right note. But to succeed, he will need to forge a new social contract, drawing on the lessons of a previous era when the US state led a program that is still paying economic dividends.

LONDON – The development of COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year was clearly a major achievement. But the rollout has been far from perfect. In the United States, Operation Warp Speed met its manufacturing targets but stumbled in coordinating initial shipments. The plan neither prioritized vaccine recipients according to need, nor did it go far enough to address racial inequality in the distribution.

Clearly, creating safe and effective vaccines and creating equitable vaccination programs are two different things. States’ Mission-oriented innovation agencies, especially the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), have proven to be critical in seeding the development of the cutting-edge mRNA vaccines. But is the technological mission of Warp Speed linked to the health mission of delivering a “People’s Vaccine”?

US President Joe Biden’s administration will need to keep this distinction in mind as it tries to “build back better” and reinvigorate science and technology funding after four years of Donald Trump’s dismissal of science and contempt for scientists. The vaccine rollout in the US – and even more so in Europe – shows that it is just as important to get the details of public-private partnerships right as it is to start with an ambitious overall objective.