SUCCESS ON STAGE: JA2’s diligent efforts to procure vaccines, therapeutics and enablers have been critical to the nation. (Photo by Staff Sgt. K. Tucker Owen, U.S. Air Force)
JPEO-CBRND makes one billion milestones look easy in the fight against COVID-19.
by Mason Aberle and Alex Hillman
How we take care of the American people directly impacts the success of our national security goals and force posturing around the globe. Perhaps more than any crisis in recent memory, COVID-19 presents a serious obstacle, which actively threatens the health and safety of Americans here at home and abroad. In the early days of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sought out the DOD to support and partner in their rapid public health acquisition needs, particularly to identify, deliver and distribute vaccines to save lives against the COVID-19 virus. Thus we had Operation Warp Speed, and later the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, before it became a team within HHS’s Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, now known as the HHS Coordination Operations and Response Element. The DOD was well versed in the mRNA vaccine platform and had experience with innovative contracting practices with unique acquisition authorities under the Defense Production Act. These experiences made the DOD an ideal partner for HHS and the nation’s public health acquisition needs during the past two or so years of the pandemic.
One office at the forefront of the DOD’s accomplishments on behalf of the nation just won two major battles that put us on stronger footing as a nation—particularly as we continue to prepare ourselves for the next battle with COVID-19 and its variants and sub variants. The two milestones the DOD’s acquisition experts have helped the nation achieve are the delivery of one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to the U.S. government and one billion free at-home COVID-19 tests.
Within the DOD’s assisted acquisition cell, the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense’s (JPEO-CBRND), Joint Assisted Acquisition (JA2) team has had the critical mission to support HHS in their most pressing COVID-19 acquisition needs. The JPEO-CBRND’s JA2 team brings together medical specialists and logisticians, acquisition experts and use unique acquisition authorities (i.e., under the Defense Production Act) that enable agile procurement of life-saving medical countermeasures in record time. The JPEO-CBRND’s creation of the JA2 team allowed a mechanism to better manage workloads supporting DOD-specific programs and the national response. JA2 also allowed the JPEO-CBRND to bring on new staff to continue to support HHS’ critical COVID-19 medical countermeasures procurement efforts. At the publication of this article, the JPEO-CBRND helped HHS obligate more than $65.7 billion across 200+ unique COVID-19 contracting efforts.
The JA2 team has three distinct levels of effort within the mission to support HHS with acquisition efforts in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, as outlined in the May 2021 memorandum of understanding: expand the domestic industrial capacity of health and medical resources; procure diagnostics and medical supplies for the Strategic National Stockpile and the nation’s most pressing current pandemic needs; and to accelerate the development, manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics to the nation and around the globe. The JA2 team is partnering closely with the Army Contracting Command’s Joint COVID-19 Response Division (ACC-JCRD) to support the various program portfolio needs listed above. The intent is to help HHS address the current pandemic and get ahead of future public health threats, through investments in our domestic industrial base to support production of life saving products critical to the nation and the DOD.
LIFESAVING PROTECTION FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE
JA2’s diligent efforts to procure vaccines, therapeutics and enablers (i.e., needles, vials and other critical items needed to administer vaccines and therapeutics) have been essential to the nation; this is where JA2’s Vaccines, Therapeutics and Enablers (VTE) team jumped into action. From the very beginning of the pandemic, the JPEO-CBRND worked closely in the whole-of-government COVID-19 response. The JPEO-CBRND’s experts at Joint Program Manager for CBRN Medical and Joint Product Lead for CBRND Enabling Biotechnologies, were natural choices for experts and resources to involve from the outset. The JPEO-CBRND is well-equipped to provide lifesaving protection for the nation through its extensive experience with acquisition and life cycle management of chemical-biological defense medical countermeasure programs and protective gear for the warfighter.
Many of the experts from these offices were quickly detailed to support the global response in partnership with HHS and DOD’s joint mission, the Countermeasures Acceleration Group. Additionally, the JPEO-CBRND team were simultaneously supporting the COVID-19 acquisition needs of Defense Health Agency and DOD Health Affairs. Most of these individuals were tasked dual mission sets—supporting the most pressing COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics research and development needs, while still trying to keep up with their day jobs—managing programs of record for CBRND project portfolios that provide CBRN protection for the warfighter. As time went on, it became clear that a dedicated team was needed to oversee acquisitions efforts from cradle to grave if the government would procure and distribute a suitable quantity of vaccine and treatment doses. JA2’s VTE team provided the link between DOD contracting and HHS, employing agile acquisition efforts for getting over two billion vaccine doses on contract and allowing acceptance of the first one billion vaccine doses domestically.
The VTE team is made up of individuals who are dedicated to helping with the early development, procurement and delivery of more than one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses. Although not often recognized by the general public, these efforts directly support the ongoing frontline response to the pandemic. Because of the VTE team’s tireless work for the past two-plus years, HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research Authority recently accepted its billionth vaccine dose for distribution.
Without the VTE team, this milestone would not have been possible. Deputy VTE Lead Breena Berté said: “When the pandemic started, JPM CBRN Medical was helping HHS with some of their contracting requirements, but it wasn’t sustainable as the pandemic continued and the mission kept expanding to meet global needs. JA2 came in to provide experts with experience using agile contracting vehicles and streamlined acquisition processes to help meet evolving requirements with accelerated timelines, while maintaining the DOD acquisition standards.”
VTE had to manage drug development processes that, ordinarily, could take a decade or more into timelines that could address a public health emergency. Following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations and leveraging years of associated development efforts allowed the country to receive vaccines and therapeutics in record time. Several of the products and development efforts started under the assistant secretary of the Army (acquisition, logistics and technology, who managed programs of record and established the pipeline that made the global response successful.
Lt. Col. Owen Roberts II leads the VTE team, and is responsible for coordinating over $56 billion worth of contracts in support of the national COVID-19 response. This includes seven vaccine contracts totaling $35.5 billion obligated to procure more than two billion doses in total; nine therapeutic contracts totaling $22 billion, yielding more than 22 million doses; and 13 contracts enabling vaccine delivery.
To support the distribution of these product quantities, the U.S. government had to coordinate and stand up IT ordering systems for distribution and planning within a matter of weeks. These distribution plans impacted contract terms and negotiations to ensure all systems and stakeholders were connected. VTE navigated these challenges successfully because, as Roberts stated, “With an acquisition mindset you can get ahead of some of the challenges—and being the Army, with our experience in supporting the warfighter, we have this experience to think critically about long-term systems.”
It is easy to get lost in the numbers. It is difficult to overstate the hard work and persistence the VTE team used to achieve these goals. “Contracts had to be awarded and requirements written based on information in real time,” Berté said. When the Omicron variant hit, for instance, VTE could not just continue using the same products they’d been working with to that point. They had to adapt by working with the data from the scientific community, drug manufacturers and the FDA and Centers for Disease Control. The VTE team identified which products would be the most useful and closing negotiations as quickly and equitably as possible to maintain the supply of effective product to the country.
DELIVERING PRESIDENT BIDEN’S ONE BILLION AT-HOME TESTS
Another way that JA2 fulfills its mission is supporting HHS to procure screening and diagnostics (S&D) products. In December 2021, during the week before Christmas, as many government offices were winding down their dockets for the holidays, the White House announced that the government would put 500 million COVID-19 over-the-counter tests into the hands of the American people for free. This was welcome news in the ramp up to the holidays, particularly for individuals and families who could not access tests. In January 2022, as the Omicron variant spread rapidly in the U.S., the president doubled the figure to a total of one billion tests to be made available to Americans for testing in the comfort and safety of their homes.
JA2’s S&D team was well-positioned to make these goals a reality, and instead of putting up their out-of-office messages, this team rolled up their sleeves and got to work on behalf of HHS and the nation. S&D’s joint project lead, Kevin Pitzer, Ph.D., was put in charge from the outset. The first problem set tackled was working with HHS and other key stakeholders to establish the requirements before beginning the herculean solicitation and contracting efforts. In his own words: “Requirements are the easy part. Writing the detailed specifications to ensure we acquired the correct tests, however, was the hard part. We went through the documents line by line to ascertain the needs, necessary logistics and language for the Request for Information [RFI] and contract language.” Under usual circumstances, just getting an RFI together and published takes months. Thanks to strong leadership at the senior executive service level, the interagency requirement team was able to get an RFI out to industry partners within two weeks. This same pace was maintained throughout each stage of the procurement process.
Previously established partnerships aided S&D’s lightning speed. By leveraging key relationships with the National Institutes of Health’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, HHS Industry Engagement, HHS Testing and Diagnostics Working Group, JPEO-CBRND’s One Network of Excellence for Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance and ACC-JCRD, the JA2 S&D team forecasted availability in the market, determined the regulatory specifications for the tests and identified which companies could potentially deliver the specific capabilities needed. On December 30, 2021, personnel were still working hard to get solicitations out. To support ACC-JCRD, Pitzer was personally calling company chief executive officers to keep momentum alive and enable the RFI to be released. They did not stop on New Year’s Eve. Their efforts ensured the RFI was appropriately modified and vital interagency coordination with HHS and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) was accomplished.
The speed at which these acquisition processes moved is unprecedented for an effort this large. To ensure everything was completed in the short window, the team worked around the clock. In some cases, ACC-JCRD officers were awarding contracts at three in the morning. There was always someone there to respond. The team was frequently in virtual meetings into the late night hours. They had to ensure the solicitation made clear that these new contracts to procure the needed COVID-19 over-the-counter tests didn’t disrupt existing orders for hospitals and nursing homes.
But contracting was not the only hurdle. HHS was tasked with ensuring product quality and efficient distribution of the tests, which were challenges all their own. How could this effort ensure that these tests were effective? To answer this question and others, S&D participated in programmatic level discussions with HHS, DLA, Defense Contracting Management Agency and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), who carefully coordinated the technical inspection activities that took place at DLA locations to ensure they were received as ordered, undamaged, and ready for shipment. The DOD is particularly adept at supporting such major logistical efforts on behalf of the nation—the JPEO-CBRND does this for warfighters and have the staffing and skillsets to help HHS solve these challenges. Following inspection, they needed to get the kits from the DLA locations to doorsteps throughout the nation. For this critical feat, the senior leaders from HHS and the DOD worked closely with USPS leadership to ensure the processes of downstream shipping were in place so everyone who requests tests from the official COVID-19 ordering website will get their tests. Equity was paramount in this process, which enabled those Americans without access to the internet, or other forms of access, to obtain the tests.
The JA2 S&D team, alongside their counterparts from HHS, DLA and USPS, worked tirelessly to accomplish this mission. As of the writing of this article, they procured approximately 900 million of the one billion tests in four months. This is a feat that would have most likely taken at least a year to accomplish; and it was all thanks to strong leadership, excellent team-work and a wide network of U.S. government and industry partners. While this mission was taxing on all interagency organizations involved, Pitzer reminds us why these efforts were worth it: “The test-kit mission was such that the S&D team, in coordination with and as part of the larger program mission, was able procure almost one billion tests for Americans who needed COVID-19 tests the most.” Tending to the condition of the nation means looking after every citizen regardless of income, status, race, ethnicity or religion.
The DOD acquisition mindset is what procured one billion tests and COVID-19 vaccine doses for the nation. Since reaching these milestones, tests and vaccines are being distributed to the warfighter and civilians alike across the globe. It is important for the acquisition community to remember, for as long as we are able, the accomplishments we have achieved and the challenges we will continue to address when we’re called on by our nation. COVID-19’s surges will eventually feel more endemic, but our purpose—to tend to the condition of the American people, whether military or civilian—will never fade.
For more information, go to https://www.defense.gov/Spotlights/Coronavirus-DOD-Response/, https://www.whitehouse.gov/covidplan/, https://www.hhs.gov/coronavirus/index.html and https://www.jpeocbrnd.osd.mil/Coronavirus/.
MASON ABERLE is a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton currently supporting the Joint Assisted Acquisition (JA2) Strategic Communications team under the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND). He has worked in support of JA2 since the beginning of 2022. He holds a B.A. in political economy from Hillsdale College, where he studied with an emphasis on praxeology and Austrian business-cycle theory.
ALEX HILLMAN is the public affairs officer and lead for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense’s (JPEO-CBRND) Joint Assisted Acquisition (JA2) Strategic Communications team. She has been with the JPEO-CBRND for almost two years. She has dual master’s degrees in public health and public policy and administration from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.