Covid-19 Oversight News: FDA Vaccine Guidelines, Slaoui’s Conflicts, and HHS’s Star-Studded Ad Campaign

American Oversight’s Covid-19 Oversight Hub provides news and policy resources to help you keep track of the investigations into the government’s pandemic response. The project brings together a public documents database, an oversight tracker of important ongoing investigations and litigation, regular news updates, and deeper dives into key issues. 

For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

This Week’s Congressional Hearings

Links to watch these hearings live will be posted in our Covid-19 Oversight Tracker

  • Friday: The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis will hold a hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on HHS’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Azar has not testified before Congress since February, when the United States had fewer than 20 confirmed deaths from Covid-19.

FDA Considers Stricter Vaccine Guidelines

The Food and Drug Administration has indicated that it will be releasing a new, tougher standard for emergency authorization of a coronavirus vaccine. The new guidance is expected to ask manufacturers to follow participants in late-stage trials for a median of at least two months, and recommend that data be evaluated by an independent committee. The stricter requirements would make it highly unlikely for any vaccine to be approved before Election Day. The president has already opposed the new guidelines, saying they seem to be a “political move” and he might deny them White House approval. 

Vaccine Czar’s Conflicts of Interest

It’s been known since May that Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief adviser of Operation Warp Speed, has millions of dollars of stock in his former company, GlaxoSmithKline, which in partnership with Sanofi has received more than $2 billion from the U.S. government for the development of a vaccine. Last week, records obtained by the House revealed that he also has undisclosed holdings in Lonza Group, a biotechnology company that has a contract with Moderna to manufacture its coronavirus vaccine. In an interview with CNBC, Slaoui denied that he had ever owned shares in Lonza, where he previously served as a board member. 

HHS Moves Ahead With Million-Dollar Ads

HHS is moving ahead with a $300 million ad campaign to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus. The campaign, which features celebrities and public health officials, is set to launch before the election, which has sparked concerns among members of Congress that it is merely a political stunt. Former HHS official Michael Caputo designed the campaign with funds Congress had originally appropriated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Caputo has publicly claimed that Trump had “demanded” that he create the campaign. 

Pentagon Redirects Medical Funding

In March, Congress gave the Defense Department $1 billion to build up the country’s medical supplies. A Washington Post investigation has revealed that the Pentagon used most of the money to buy military equipment instead, redirecting millions to shipbuilding giants, aircraft part manufacturers, and uniform companies. Ten of these defense contractors also received Paycheck Protection Program loans, reported the Post

Fed’s Business Support Comes at Workers’ Expense

A report released by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis studied corporate bonds purchased through the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility, a lending institution backed by CARES Act funding.

  • Of the 500 large companies whose bonds the Federal Reserve bought, almost half have been accused of illegal conduct in the last three years.
  • 140 have collectively laid off more than 1 million workers since March — including 95 that paid dividends to their shareholders while letting workers go
  • Testifying before Congress last week, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell acknowledged that unemployment remains a problem and called for more fiscal spending. 

Supply Shortages Endure

The GAO released a Covid-19 report showing that shortages in the medical supply and testing chain are limiting the efficacy of the federal pandemic response. The report found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has open requests for millions of gloves, gowns, and respirators — and that some of these gaps won’t be filled until next year. States are also suffering from testing supply shortages. The report calls upon FEMA and HHS to develop federal plans to address these gaps. 

Federal Executions May Cause Covid-19 Spread

The ACLU obtained documents that show how executions at a Bureau of Prisons facility in Terre Haute, Ind., contributed to the rapid spread of Covid-19. The documents reveal that a staff member involved in execution preparations had tested positive for Covid-19 in July, just days before the facility’s first execution, but continued to have extensive contact with staff and prisoners without wearing a mask. BOP only tested some of those who were exposed to this individual. Two weeks before that execution, there were 11 positive cases; as of mid-September, there were more than 200, though the ACLU notes that this is likely an undercount given that BOP has tested less than a third of the incarcerated population. 

ICE’s Practices Enable Coronavirus Spread

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform released a staff report detailing the findings of a 14-month-long investigation into Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers and two for-profit contractors that operate ICE detention centers, CoreCivic and GEO Group. The report noted that longstanding practices like overcrowding, prolonged detention, lack of consistent and quality medical care, unsanitary living conditions, and poor detainee treatment created conditions in which Covid-19 could spread rapidly. ICE has confirmed that more than 6,000 detainees and ICE staff have contracted Covid-19, and the committee is concerned that these numbers will continue to rapidly increase.