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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 WarrenDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks What's behind the divisions over Biden's secretary of Labor? Alito to far-right litigants: The buffet is open MORE (Mass.), and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry MORE (Hawaii), wrote in letter to Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeHouse Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' MORE (R-Okla.), and ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedTop Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' Overnight Defense: Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper | Worries grow about rudderless post-election Pentagon | Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up | Pelosi says Esper firing shows Trump intent on sowing 'chaos' Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up 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 John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump 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.