Unlike many of the career health officials they worked with or oversaw, some political appointees within Operation Warp Speed held an ideological belief that the federal government should limit its role to empowering the private sector, handing off responsibility for actual vaccinations to the states. The program’s mantra—“federally assisted, state managed, locally executed”—was adhered to so slavishly that urgent requests for direct federal assistance to states for vaccinations, from increased funding to additional manpower, were rebuffed, Vanity Fair has learned.

General Gustave Perna, who headed Operation Warp Speed’s logistics, prioritized two key metrics for success, say two people involved in the program: to ship out vaccines within 24 hours of the Food and Drug Administration authorization and to develop a regular cadence for vaccine deliveries to the states. But his definition of mission accomplished didn’t seem to involve actually getting people vaccinated. In one tense meeting between Perna and the CDC, Perna’s staff had to explain to the four-star general that the CDC defined success by two entirely different metrics: the uptake of the vaccine and the elimination of the pandemic, said someone present at the meeting.

Perna retained laser-like focus on what was called the N-hour sequence: the plan to move out the vaccine within 24 hours of its being authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. Perna “talked about how it would look” on TV, said one CDC official. “He really thought that would be the most important thing to build vaccine confidence.” The emphasis on the N-hour sequence led to days of phone calls and tabletop exercises. “It took up tons of staff time,” said the CDC official.