Members of Congress, advocacy groups and a former administration official say Operation Warp Speed should release its vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies, following an NPR report that the Trump administration awarded billions of dollars through a third party, bypassing the usual contracting process.
"The administration really just seems to be playing a game of hide and seek," Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, told NPR.
When Doggett and his colleagues were working on a bipartisan bill this spring to create a central database to track COVID-19 spending, they didn't know some of Operation Warp Speed's biggest contracts were going through a third party.
Now, Doggett said the legislation will be reworked to make sure the contracts between pharmaceutical companies and third parties are included in the database.
NPR reported Sept. 29 that the Trump administration's crash coronavirus vaccine program awarded more than $6 billion in vaccine contracts through a third party called Advanced Technology International. The contracts executed this way aren't required to include taxpayer protections found in traditional government contracts. They also may not be disclosable under federal public records laws.
"I want to be 100% certain that we include this kind of arrangement" in our database, said Doggett, chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. "Taxpayers just have too much at stake here, and we need to be sure that they're not being shortchanged."
Breaking with norms, the Trump administration hasn't responded to House requests for information regarding coronavirus spending, Doggett said. "They hide this information not only from our subcommittee, but from other members and from the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis . . . We continue inquiring and they continue ducking and dodging."
Operation Warp Speed is "prohibited" from releasing any confidential or proprietary information, but it is "committed to maximum transparency and will provide more details about contracts to Congress and the public as soon as we are legally able," according to an emailed statement from an HHS spokesperson.
"We are diligently working with our interagency colleagues to gather, review, and appropriately release relevant contracts without revealing protected information, such as information that is proprietary or trade secret, or impacts any ongoing negotiations," the spokesperson wrote. "We remain committed to continued accommodation of both General Accountability Office review and congressional oversight of Operation Warp Speed."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, called equal access to a free vaccine around the world "our best hope" at ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
"But right now, the entire process is riddled with political interference and a lack of transparency," she said in a written statement to NPR. "We absolutely need significantly more transparency and accountability when it comes to vaccine contracts and decisions being made at Operation Warp Speed. These contracts need to be made public so Congress and the American people are not left in the dark — there is too much at stake."
Unknown contract terms
Rick Bright, who was ousted as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in April, filed a whistleblower complaint in May, alleging some federal contracts for the COVID-19 response were awarded based on "political connections and cronyism" rather than scientific evidence. BARDA, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, develops vaccines, tests and treatments.
In an interview with NPR, Bright said nontraditional contracts can be written to include taxpayer protections. But issuing and administering contracts through a third party, gives him pause because the terms could be hidden.
"We don't know the rewards or the incentives that the companies are getting, which might drive some companies to take additional risk or maybe do things inappropriately," he said.
The lack of transparency is particularly troubling, he said.
"There's no reason to hide what's in those agreements at all," he said, adding that these contracts are usually disclosable under public records laws. "For the government to set these contracts up in this way and block that type of transparency leads me to think that there's something interesting in there they don't want discovered."
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told NPR she asked the administration for contracts early in the pandemic, but never got them. She, too, objected to the lack of transparency.
"We are very concerned that there's nothing in these contracts that we are aware of that would stop any kind of price gouging," she said, adding that it could affect patients as well as taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
During a February House hearing, Schakowsky asked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to promise that coronavirus treatments would be affordable for everyone. He declined, and told her, "We can't control that price because we need the private sector to invest."
Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the advocacy group Accountable Pharma, said his organization has sent several rounds of public records requests to HHS and the Department of Defense, asking for contracts related to Operation Warp Speed.
"There is no indication that the administration has any interest in being transparent, at least with public advocacy groups," he said. "We got literally nothing back. Crickets."
NPR first began looking into the possibility of a third party when HHS responded that it had "no records" in response to a request for the $1.6 billion vaccine contract with Novavax, which the agency announced in July.
Accountable Pharma didn't know about the third party until NPR reported it. Zupnick said he wished he was surprised, but instead he's just "dismayed."
"This is par for the course for Operation Warp Speed," he said. "And par for the course for this administration, which has shrouded this Operation Warp Speed in secrecy right from the start, refused to allow any transparency or accountability, despite the fact that billions and billions of taxpayer dollars are being shoveled into the coffers of the drug companies."
Since the contracts aren't traditional government contracts, they don't need to include a clause allowing the government to "march in" if the drugmaker engages in price gouging, for example. (Vaccine makers have said they plan to make a profit on their coronavirus vaccines and set higher prices once the immediate crisis is over.) That worries Zupnick, who said he wonders what other taxpayer protections the contracts might have left out.
David Mitchell, founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs, is a cancer patient at high risk from COVID-19. Although he wants a vaccine and thinks speed and flexibility are important for reaching that goal, he said "good government really does require transparency."
He said contracts and other information should be available to citizens through public records requests — or better yet, the government should post them online even without formal requests to do so.
He was struck by the Trump administration's comparison of Operation Warp Speed to the Manhattan Project.
"This isn't a secret government weapon we're trying to keep from an enemy," he said. "The enemy is the virus. This is actually a rescue mission to save Americans and humanity from the virus."
You can contact NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin at email@example.com.