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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 WarrenOvernight Health Care: Biden says US will have enough vaccine for all adults by end of May | Biden calls on all states to vaccinate teachers by the end of March | Texas, Mississippi lift mask mandates Biden picks for financial agencies offer preview of regulatory agenda Becerra tells Warren he will do 'thorough review' of executive actions on drug prices MORE (Mass.), and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine Pro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget Sunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues MORE (Hawaii), wrote in letter to Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Tim Kaine moves to claw back war powers authority | Study on sexual harassment and assault in the military Commissioners tasked with scrubbing Confederate base names sworn-in at first meeting Biden seeks to walk fine line with Syria strike MORE (R-Okla.), and ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Tim Kaine moves to claw back war powers authority | Study on sexual harassment and assault in the military Commissioners tasked with scrubbing Confederate base names sworn-in at first meeting CORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report 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 TrumpSouth Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Ex-Trump aide Pierson won't run for Dallas-area House seat House Oversight panel reissues subpoena for Trump's accounting firm 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.