Senate Democrats want hearing on Pentagon vaccine effort

Senate Democrats want hearing on Pentagon vaccine effort
© Greg Nash

Two Senate Armed Services Committee Democrats want panel leaders to hold a hearing on the Pentagon’s efforts to help develop a coronavirus vaccine, citing concerns the Trump administration is skirting public disclosure rules.

The committee “has yet to hold a public hearing dedicated exclusively to [Defense Department] efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action MORE (Mass.), and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoHillicon Valley: Facebook tightens teen protections | FBI cautions against banning ransomware payments | Republicans probe White House-social media collaboration Top FBI official advises Congress against banning ransomware payments Democrats criticize FBI's handling of tip line in Kavanaugh investigation MORE (Hawaii), wrote in letter to Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeGillibrand expects vote on military justice bill in fall The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Biden backs Cuban protesters, assails 'authoritarian regime' Trump getting tougher for Senate GOP to ignore MORE (R-Okla.), and ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedHouse panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors Senate panel votes to make women register for draft Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance MORE (D-R.I.). “Given the outsized role DOD appears to be playing in vaccine development and distribution, we request the SASC immediately hold a hearing on this matter.” 

The letter was sent Friday and released on Tuesday.

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The Pentagon has a significant role in Operation Warp Speed (OWS), the White House’s far-reaching goal to create and distribute 300 million safe and effective doses of the vaccine — one for roughly every American — with a goal of the first doses coming by late December or January.

Congress has so far authorized $10 billion to the public-private effort, which also includes the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health as well as private health and drug companies.

DOD is involved in creating and testing the vaccine, and President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE has repeatedly indicated that the military would distribute doses across the country.

At the Thursday presidential debate, Trump said generals are “lined up” and “ready to go as soon as we have the vaccine, and we expect to have 100 million vials.”

But Warren and Hirono are concerned that OWS’s distribution of $6 billion in awards “bypasses regulatory requirements and limits transparency, raising numerous questions and ethical concerns,” the two wrote.

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The Pentagon awards OWS-related contracts through a defense contract management firm, Advanced Technologies International Inc., which allows the department to bypass public-disclosure rules, National Public Radio reported.

The two Senators write that it’s important that lawmakers hear testimony from DOD officials to gain more transparency into how the Pentagon is using congressionally appropriated funds for OWS, particularly its processes for how it distributes those funds through contracts.

What’s more, recent reports have revealed that 60 of the 90 leaders of the operation are with the military, a possible “overrepresentation” of the Pentagon that “may come at the expense of public health officials,” according to the letter.

“Public health agencies such as FDA and CDC are surprisingly underrepresented with just a few members of each organization present in OWS’s reported organizational structure,” they write. 

While there may well be a valuable role for DOD officials in the effort, “it is important that Congress conduct appropriate oversight of, and understand, DOD’s activities in this area.”

The coronavirus has killed more than 225,000 people in America so far, with an average of 60,000 cases and nearly 794 deaths per day across the country, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.