Although it cannot be bombed or cyberattacked, the covid-19 crisis has been likened to World War III. While some have criticized the comparison to war, in one key way, it may suggest a model for defeating the virus now upending our lives and threatening national security.
During World War II, the nation's scientific and medical expertise was mobilized to fight the war. On an emergency basis, we need to repeat that mobilization, and build collaborative industry-academic-government networks to address covid-19 and its consequences for public health and clinical care. A new, well-funded Office of Scientific Research and Development, striving to stop covid-19 as its central goal, might be the most important military and health priority of our time.
The Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, funded scientific research that led to the mass production of penicillin, the atomic bomb, computing, better boots and sleeping bags, new instrument dials, napalm, new rockets and many other discoveries both major and minor. In the end the OSRD signed 2,300 contracts with 321 universities and 142 nonprofit and academic institutions. In less than six years it spent $500 million, a remarkable budget in the 1940s (equivalent to more than $9 billion today). This amount did not include the $2 billion (1940s dollars, now about $32 billion) spent on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.
The government's investment in science and technology was critical to helping the United States and its allies win World War II. Between 1939 and 1945, every scientific agency of the U.S. government, from the U.S. Geological Survey to the Department of Agriculture, worked on problems that reflected top military goals. They collaborated with experts at elite universities, especially in the Northeast, most importantly MIT, which benefited from an infusion of federal cash that transformed campuses. Technical and engineering industries large and small also grew rapidly with new government contracts and new collaborative arrangements.
The brilliant engineer Vannevar Bush, then president of the Carnegie Institution, was anointed by Roosevelt to lead the program and succeeded beyond even his own expectations. An idiosyncratic, essentially conservative critic of the New Deal, he built mobilization around a deep suspicion of the federal patronage that he controlled. The result was a managerial accomplishment of the highest order.
Bush used the power of the contract — an arrangement that preserved the autonomy of scientists and engineers — rather than grants or purchase orders. And OSRD contracts, still preserved at the National Archives, were often more like promissory notes. Rather than contracting to deliver a certain number of a certain thing by a certain date, a laboratory or company would agree to do the best it could, as quickly as possible, to solve an identified, critical problem. Many deliveries never happened — it was a system that had plenty of room for failures. But this flexibility meant every possible strategy could be and was pursued concurrently, a recipe for creativity and initiative.
Bush worked with military leadership to identify problems to be solved and leveraged his resources and power to engage every possible expert. Many saw him as arrogant and elitist (he was) but his approach to mobilization was a stunning practical success in the midst of a global emergency.
Wartime penicillin production, for example, eventually transformed health care and led to a new antibiotics industry. This transformative moment depended not only on the discovery of penicillin, but also on the "scaling up" to mass production that U.S. industry, academy and government science teaming together made possible.
Penicillin had been described as a possible antibacterial agent in 1928, but it was not seriously tested (and even then only with a few mice) until 1941. The British group doing the testing (which later was awarded the Nobel Prize) found limited interest in British industrial circles, so it appealed to personal contacts on the OSRD's Committee on Medical Research. The CMR brought together American pharmaceutical firms in a famous "penicillin conference" in October 1941.
Each firm was asked to focus on different strategies and technologies, so that every possible solution was tested. Pfizer was a small fine chemicals plant in Brooklyn with expertise in submerged fermentation in huge tanks for citric acid production. When that turned out to be the crucial technology for producing penicillin, the company, led by engineer Jasper Kane, applied its existing knowledge to ferment the Penicillium mold. Other companies tried other methods, with more than 20 companies involved at various strategies.
Government scientists were involved, too: Mycologist Andrew Moyer at USDA lab at Peoria led the effort to use corn steep liquor as a nutrient broth for penicillin. At the private, nonprofit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, geneticist Milislav Demerec irradiated the Penicillium mold to produce a more powerful, mutated strain.
The OSRD signed 57 research contracts relating to penicillin trials, synthesis and fermentation and the War Production Board, working with the OSRD Committee on Chemotherapeutic and Other Agents, engaged with 21 companies, five universities and several government agencies including USDA. These networks shared information through open meetings, plant tours and technical reports.
Meanwhile the Justice Department set aside rules relating to antitrust laws that might affect corporate cooperation. Penicillin production soared. Field testing was spectacularly successful. On D-Day, in 1944, penicillin landed on the beaches with the troops. Less than a year later, in April 1945, it was in pharmacies in the United States.
If you are reading this today, there is a fairly good chance that you have benefited from antibiotics more than once. And antibiotics began as a defense technology.
The successful mobilization of science between 1939 and 1945 played a critical role in the emergence of the United States as the dominant military power in the world. The United States has also been a scientific and technological powerhouse, leading the world in Nobel Prizes over the past 70 years (375 winners as of 2019, vs. 129 for the runner-up, the U.K.). This confluence of both scientific and military dominance is not a coincidence.
Nonetheless, we've lost some of the collaborative spirit that animated the achievements of the World War II era, outsourcing much of our innovation to private companies like those that dominate Silicon Valley. But that model is far less likely to overcome the enemy we face today as quickly as a resurrection of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Its model of coordinating development among government agencies, nonprofits and for-profit corporations, each of which brings something to the table in this fight, is exactly what we need to find a solution to covid-19 as rapidly as possible.
We need to support scientists and fund all kinds of relevant research in virology and other fields, immediately, on an emergency basis. Leaders at the federal and state levels need to recognize that hospitals and health care in general are part of national defense - and in a country with the largest defense budget in the world, we should spare no expense on health-care systems and science.
Lindee is Janice and Julian Bers professor of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. This piece was written for The Washington Post.
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