May 6, 2021
Shortly after the COVID-19 virus was identified, healthcare workers around the world joined in the race to find a vaccine and treatment. The five HJF Heroes of Military Medicine honorees—General Gustave F. Perna (Countermeasures Acceleration Group), Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Colacicco-Mayhugh (Army), Lieutenant Commander (Doctor) Matthew Hall, MC (Navy), Lieutenant Colonel Patrick W. Kennedy (Air Force), and the multiple pharmaceutical companies that developed effective vaccines in record time—confronted the pandemic early on and each of them made significant contributions in the fight against COVID-19.
“I quickly realized that this would be an enormous challenge not just for the country, but for the world,” said General Perna, Chief Operating Officer for Operation Warp Speed, now known as the Countermeasures Acceleration Group. “We were all united in our cause to defeat a common enemy: COVID-19.”
“There was a definite sense of urgency as many of our scientists and other team members began to support a variety of COVID-19 related efforts,” said LTC Colacicco-Mayhugh, Military Deputy to the Principal Assistant for Acquisition at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command.
“The ambiguity of COVID-19 drove my team on every front to learn more,” said Lt Col Kennedy, Director of the 60th Medical Group at the David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base. “During the Ebola crisis I had worked at National Center for Medical Intelligence, so I was aware of the potential of a large-scale respiratory pandemic from the onset. Particularly of concern was the high transmissibility rate.”
Making Progress Daily
As news of continued spread increased in the ensuing months, it became clear that the virus wasn’t going away quickly. “Every day more information was being revealed,” Lt Col Kennedy said. “We all felt like we were behind the curve, but making progress daily.”
According to General Perna, early conversations focused on establishing a fast, flat organization that could move quickly and focus on its mission. “The first month was dedicated to selecting a small team of around a hundred service members and civilians from across DoD that would become Project Warp Speed,” he said.
In April 2020, LTC Colacicco-Mayhugh began serving as a Product Lead for the COVID-19 Joint Acquisition Task Force and supported the interagency response to the pandemic and helped the Strategic National Stockpile replenish its supplies. In addition, she remained engaged in her current role at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, which has been integrally involved with labs working on vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, as well as helped to shepherd a variety of personal protective equipment, devices, therapeutics, and other equipment to wherever it was most needed.
The David Grant USAF Medical Center, which is the Air Force’s largest medical center in the continental United States, was the first Air Force medical treatment facility to have the capability to test COVID-19 with the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization assay. Lt Col Kennedy recalled that early discussions revolved around staff safety, particularly for those who were more susceptible due to other medical concerns. As they made progress, in-house testing reduced symptomatic turn-around times for high-risk patients from seven days to less than 24 hours. “The disease did not behave like the flu and the seriousness of patient acuity and morbidity rates pushed my team,” he said.
For the Department of the Navy, LCDR Hall initially coordinated logistic and medical policy efforts across the joint force, which was instrumental in the successful implementation of the COVID-19 vaccination program. As the Preventive Medicine action officer at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, where he also serves as a Public Health Emergency Officer as well as at Naval Installations Command, he was a major contributor in the development of Navy COVID-19 containment policy.
A Deployment Mindset
Throughout March and April, LTC Colacicco-Mayhugh’s calendar was increasingly filled with meetings focused on COVID-19. “I remember getting an email very early on a Saturday about a meeting later that day to discuss some supply chain issues,” said LTC Colacicco-Mayhugh. She recalled having a conversation with her husband about how strange it was to be working “deployment hours” at home.
General Perna also compared the effort to a deployment. “Our team has worked nights, weekends, and holidays for months on end,” he said. “We established our routines and focused on the foundations of health—eating, exercising, and getting enough sleep.”
As scientists and medical researchers raced to find a vaccine, they were well aware that the shortest timeline to ever bring a vaccine to market was the mumps vaccine, which took more than four years. Yet over the course of 10 months, a herculean effort resulted in more than 180 million doses of three safe and highly effective vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. More than 900,000 courses of four safe and effective therapeutics would be distributed to Americans, with hundreds of millions of more doses in the pipeline, by May 2021.
A “Whole-of-America” Response
General Perna was reminded of a similar time during World War II, when the nation’s “arsenal of democracy” was created by mobilizing our industry, economy, and military for a common cause.
“This situation is very similar,” he said. “While we’re in different times, our ‘whole-of-America’ response harnessed the power and existing capabilities of government, scientists, and industry. Without them, delivering safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics in under a year would not have been possible.”
LTC Colacicco-Mayhugh credits “a massive team of people” who responded to the pandemic. “For every person who was detailed to support the direct response, there are several people behind them who took on more work in order to help make sure that the core mission of the organization moved forward,” she said. “Those people are not recognized nearly enough, but their contributions are equally as critical as each of the people who ended up supporting a specific pandemic response effort.”
“It has been the honor of my lifetime to work with an incredible team,” said General Perna. “I credit the dedication and hard work of our entire team, including DoD, HHS, industry partners, and the true unsung heroes—the over 100,000 Americans who supported clinical trials who made delivering hundreds of millions of vaccines possible.”