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Vaccine research funding misused for decade, says special counsel office

Vaccine research funding misused for decade, says special counsel office
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Federal officials have misused a fund intended for vaccine research to pay for unrelated expenses since at least 2010, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel alleged in letters to President Biden and Congress on Wednesday.

Millions of dollars that Congress appropriated to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for vaccine research and emergency preparedness for public health threats was instead spent on administrative expenses, legal services, unrelated salaries and in one case, the removal of office furniture.

HHS’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation after a whistleblower alerted the Office of Special Counsel about the misuse of funding, culminating in a report released Wednesday that claims many of the allegations were true.

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“I am deeply concerned about ASPR’s apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said in a press release, referring to the Office of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

“I urge Congress and HHS to take immediate actions to ensure funding for public health emergencies can no longer be used as a slush-fund for unrelated expenses,” he added.

According to the report, the ASPR, which is under HHS, misused funds intended for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), violating federal law in the process.

The misuse of funds was so well-known within the agency that it was referred to internally as the “Bank of BARDA,” investigators allege.

The report doesn’t contain specific estimates for how much funding was misappropriated, but claims that evidence shows that as recently as 2019, ASPR, which oversees BARDA, “improperly” took about $25 million from the biomedical agency.

From 2007 to 2016, ASPR was unable to account for more than $517 million in administrative expenditures.

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The findings come as the U.S. responds to a once-in-a-generation pandemic, in which BARDA and ASPR has played a role in funding research into COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Throughout the Obama administration, investigators allege, BARDA’s funds were raided to pay the salaries of people who didn’t work there, totaling at least $897,491.

In response to the report’s findings, HHS initiated an internal review and hired an outside accounting firm to audit the use of BARDA’s funding.