The world's most loathed industry gave us a vaccine in record time

Crucially, the government was shouldering some risk, financing the advance production of the experimental vaccines while clinical trials were still going on. “The most risk-averse people on Earth in the riskiest business on Earth” is how U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar describes the drug industry. “Probably the most common words said in a pharma company are, ‘How do you de-risk this?’ ” Azar, whose department helped oversee Warp Speed, says he understood how tricky a bet on vaccines can be for a business. “These companies are looking at making the multibillion-dollar investments in R&D and manufacturing capacity,” he says. “And they had just been through Zika, SARS, they’ve been through MERS”—viruses for which the pharmaceutical industry investigated vaccines that never saw the outside of a clinical trial before those outbreaks dissipated or were squashed.

The government’s backing let smaller players get in the game and take some riskier technologies forward. Smaller companies such as Moderna “don’t have the resources to do this on their own,” Joffe says of large-scale clinical trials. Pfizer, despite its corporate reputation as a rival-consuming shark, said it would offer up any excess manufacturing capacity it might have—potentially producing competitors’ vaccines…

But it’s also a story that highlights just how badly the U.S. screwed up almost everything else to do with controlling the pandemic. The nation had every asset needed to curb the virus: The world’s best scientists, the biggest collection of biotechnology and pharma companies, a powerful government, and well-established public-health institutions. The U.S. even had unlimited financing. (Perhaps the one other thing policymakers got right is that they pumped enough money into the system to keep the economy alive, but even then Congress was slow to strike a second relief deal, which the president has yet to sign.) And Americans still ended up with a badly contained, deadly outbreak. Schools have gone remote. Lots of restaurants will never reopen. Chances are, you know somebody who was sick enough to be hospitalized or to have died.