February 25, 2021

At SASC Hearing, Chief Operating Officer for the COVID-19 Response Commits to More Vaccine Transparency to Protect the American People -- Not Pharma Executives

Video of Exchange (Youtube)


Washington, DC — During today's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned General Gustave F. Perna, Chief Operating Officer for the Federal COVID-19 Response for Vaccine and Therapeutics, on his commitment to ensure the current federal vaccine effort will not be riddled with ethical conflicts and mismanagement, as the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed was.


Senator Warren specifically asked for his commitment to prioritize taxpayer protections in their contracts and require any subcontractors to include these protections in their contracts moving forward. In response, General Perna committed to writing and developing vaccine contracts that protect the American people, instead of pharmaceutical executives. 


Today’s hearing also follows Senators Warren and Mazie K. Hirono’s (D-Hawaii) request from October 2020 for a hearing to specifically look at the role of the Department of Defense in Operation Warp Speed, President Trump’s COVID-19 vaccine response that was characterized by ethical conflicts and mismanagement.



U.S. Senate Armed Services 

Thursday, February 25, 2021


Senator Elizabeth Warren: So, thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you for being here, General.


Last October, Senator Hirono and I requested a hearing on DOD’s role in developing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines, and I am very glad that this is one of the first topics that you’re addressing as Chairman. So thank you very much for that, Chairman Reed.


I asked for this hearing because the federal vaccine effort—called “Operation Warp Speed” by President Trump—was characterized by ethical conflicts and mismanagement.


And one of my biggest concerns is a lack of transparency. OWS issued billions of dollars-worth of vaccine contracts—but with too little accountability on that. Last year, DOD issued $6 billion in contracts to a defense contractor, Advanced Technologies International, Inc. This company then issued subcontracts to various pharmaceutical firms in an arrangement called an “Other Transaction Authorities” that allowed pharma to bypass regulatory requirements and that limited disclosures.


So, General Perna, what is the rationale for this subcontracting process, other than to reduce transparency and avoid regulatory and ethics requirements? 


General Perna: So, Senator, I can't speak broadly enough, defer to my colleagues here at the table. But, for OWS and the work that we've done, we've worked really hard to remain transparent in coordination with the GAO and to make sure that everything we're doing is legally, ethically, and morally correct. And we've provided all of our contracts to them so that they can be a part and help us see ourselves and work our way forward.


Senator Warren: I appreciate that, General, and I appreciate the need to move quickly, but I think that transparency -- giving up transparency, particularly when billions of dollars of taxpayer money are involved is not the right forward-- right approach. So, let me just ask you. Moving forward, will DOD commit to procurement transparency on our federal vaccine efforts? 


General Perna: Senator, I apologize, but I can't commit for DOD. I'd have to go to my colleagues.


Stacy A. Cummings: Senator, this is Stacy Cummings from Acquisition and Sustainment. We do send a monthly report to Defense Committee staff that I will make sure that your staff has a copy of. And what I can commit to is that we will continue to be transparent in how we are spending both DOD funds as well as in our agency funds. The other transaction authority is a tool that helps us move quickly. It is not meant to, in any way, to stop us from being transparent. I would be happy to come and brief you or your staff on other transaction authorities and the benefits. Happy to do that at your convenience.


Senator Warren: I appreciate your saying that you want to be transparent but just saying you're going to continue the current level of transparency is just simply not good enough.


You know, the structure of the contracts were part of the problem. The terms of these contracts were bad, too. Public interest groups had to fight OWS to release its contracts—and when it did, it became clear that the Trump administration had sold out the American public. Key contracts—including the contracts with Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson—excluded critical taxpayer pricing protections. One expert described these contracts as, “giving away the store.” 


So, let me ask the question another way based on what we know. I'll go back to you General Perna. It seems to me that DOD should serve the American taxpayers, not massive pharmaceutical companies. So, moving forward, will you commit to writing and developing vaccine contracts that protect the American people, instead of pharmaceutical executives? 


General Perna: You have my 100% commitment to that end.


Senator Warren: Good, I am very glad to hear that. You know, given the massive taxpayer investment and public health interest in COVID-19 therapeutics, and vaccines, and other medical products, the American people deserve to know that the federal government is using their tax dollars to develop medical products as quickly as possible and at the very best possible price—not to line the pockets of wealthy companies by cutting corners in consumer protection, or pricing, or quality.


So, I recognize, General Perna, that you may have been limited by the previous administration in many respects, but I’m noting for the record here and now that you have committed to do a good deal more, and I will hold you to that commitment.


Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.