Millions of dollars meant to prepare for public health threats went to things like office furniture removal, watchdog says

Millions of dollars meant to prepare for public health threats went to things like office furniture removal, watchdog says
Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing to discuss protecting scientific integrity in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Thursday, May 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)Associated Press
  • HHS misappropriated millions from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a new watchdog report found.
  • BARDA is responsible for pandemic preparedness.
  • The misappropriation of funds spanned ten years.

The Department of Health and Human Services misappropriated millions meant in part for pandemic preparedness, an HHS whistleblower and watchdog report alleged.

HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is believed to have misused the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority funds between the fiscal year of 2010 and ending in 2019, according to the investigation conducted by the HHS Inspector General and overseen by the Office of Special Counsel.

In a letter, special counsel Henry Kerner told President Joe Biden that he was "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." (During the 10-year period there have been several people in that role.)
According to investigators, the whistleblower said they heard it being referred to as the "Bank of BARDA." Funds were diverted for things like office furniture removal, the salaries of other department employees, and legal services.

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While the report does not specify how much was misappropriated altogether, the report says that between 2007 and 2016 the agency "failed to account for" more than $500 million. Additionally, in 2019, officials at the assistant secretary's office took around $25 million from BARDA's research funding.

"All expenditures were done in a routine way," Nicole Lurie, who helmed ASPR under the Obama administration told The Washington Post. She also told The Post that she was not interviewed as part of the investigation.

Lurie also told The Post: "BARDA was part of ASPR and had a shared mission and used common resources." BARDA was established in December 2006 by Congress. The agency's mission is "to develop and procure needed medical countermeasures, including vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and non-pharmaceutical countermeasures, against a broad array of public health threats, whether natural or intentional in origin," according to HHS.

While this report expands across the tenures of former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, BARDA has been entrapped in several controversies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last May, BARDA Director Rick Bright was fired and claimed he was demoted to a job at the National Institutes of Health for pushing back against the use of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalaria drug that Trump embraced as an unproven treatment for COVID-19.

Later studies found that the drug was not effective at treating COVID-19, and in June the Food and Drug Administration revoked the emergency use authorization it had in place for the drug.

Bright also filed a federal whistleblower complaint and alleged the HHS gave high-level contracts to companies with political connections.

Bright later told Congress that he was warning about the current COVID-19 pandemic and raised alarms about the US preparedness for an outbreak as early as January but was met with "indifference which then developed into hostility," by HHS.

"And he said, 'We're in deep s---. The world is. And we need to act,'" Bright recalled. "And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response."
"From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our healthcare workers, because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production to save the lives of those healthcare workers, and we didn't act."

More than 25.5 million Americans have so far been infected with COVID-19 and over 429,000 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

HHS has not replied to a request for comment at the time of publication.