In the spring of 2020, the federal pandemic response was marked by inefficiency, disorganization, and a lack of clarity about how decisions were being made. As states scrambled to get crucial medical supplies and President Donald Trump publicly opposed safety measures, his son-in-law Jared Kushner took charge of key aspects of the response, despite a lack of qualifications.
During those early months, Kushner’s task force was criticized for creating coordination problems as he attempted to manage decision-making at federal health agencies, including the FDA. And while the task force often succeeded in crowd-sourcing much-needed medical supplies and personal protective equipment, its heavy reliance on the private sector and personal contacts raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.
American Oversight has previously published communications between Kushner and top executives of private companies. Additional records, published this week, show yet more instances of federal officials, including Kushner and then-FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, entertaining queries from representatives of private companies who wished to be involved in the pandemic response.
The documents include emails between representatives of the software company Oracle, which was building a coronavirus treatment-tracking platform, and Hahn and White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx. Oracle’s top executives had long-standing ties to Trump — in 2016, Safra Catz, Oracle’s CEO, joined Trump’s transition team while remaining at the company. And in 2020, Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison hosted a fundraiser for Trump’s reelection campaign.
On March 21, 2020, Hahn sent an email to Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Robert Redfield, and other health officials with the subject line, “Oracle Platform.” In the email, Hahn wrote, “We have a 5pm deadline tomorrow to deliver a plan.” He listed some questions about “the platform” and said, “The White House had made it clear that they will help us remove any barriers.”
On April 1, Oracle announced that it had built a Covid-19 Therapeutic Learning System (TLS) that would allow physicians to input and track the efficacy of coronavirus treatments, with HHS later announcing that this data would not be owned by Oracle or any private organization. The company said the system had been built in partnership with the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services. In an April 9 email, two days after Birx had a call with Catz, Oracle Vice President Josh Pitcock referred to that federal involvement: “Since Safra and Dr. Birx spoke we have updated the TLS and it is now capable of taking in the testing results. … So, great progress for what Dr. Birx was hoping TLS could do.”
The records also show White House officials forwarding Hahn multiple queries from private contacts throughout March and April 2020. On March 3, special assistant to the president James Williams told Hahn that the company Beyond Air was producing a portable nitric oxide system. Williams asked if the product could be “prioritized for consideration of approved testing and an open label trial with COVID-19 infected patients.” Hahn replied, “We will look at it.” In August 2020, the company received FDA approval for a clinical trial testing this technology’s ability to fight Covid-19.
On March 31, White House official Tyler Ann McGuffee forwarded to Hahn and Birx a message from Thomas Cahill, the managing partner of investment firm Newpath Partners. Cahill had written that his “team of citizen-scientists” wanted to share a proposal that would “provide a safe and effective therapy for Covid-19 within as little as 3 months.” In response, Hahn said that he thought the FDA “should engage.”
In late April, the Wall Street Journal reported that this group had offered the White House multiple recommendations against the coronavirus, including treating patients with powerful drugs at high dosages. The FDA implemented some of their recommendations, including loosening manufacturing regulations and requirements for specific coronavirus drugs.
The next month, Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, asked Hahn to get involved with Cell Armour, a product that a California doctor had pitched to Trump adviser Hope Hicks. According to the doctor’s email to Hicks, the product was “demonstrating notable efficacy against” Covid-19 and had a “strong potential to change the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“Can you please check into the below,” Miller asked. Hahn replied, “Will do.” The product does not appear to have received FDA approval.
Kushner’s emails provide yet further indication of the attention granted to private companies that were looking to play a role in the government’s pandemic response. On April 4, Rob Moran, the president of ATOR Labs, told Kushner that his company had developed an emergency ventilator and was filing for emergency use authorization from the FDA.
“We have been closely following the Trump administration, and know that you are a key figure in the Federal response to this pandemic,” Moran wrote. “With a sliver of Federal resources, we would exponentially increase our production to match the exponential rise of the COVID-19 virus.” The company’s ventilator also does not appear to have received FDA approval.
That same week, Kelly Craft, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, forwarded Kushner an email from someone named Joe Montgomery, who wrote: “One of my companies is working with [the Organization for Poverty Alleviation and Development] on a drinking water initiative. One of our suppliers has several million certified N95 masks. Thought you could help me get to the right federal contact.” Kushner forwarded the message to Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who at the time was leading efforts to improve the medical supply chain as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Finally, American Oversight also obtained communications from the weeks before the pandemic fully took hold in the United States, including early communications about the development of Covid-19 vaccines. These include a Feb. 14, 2020, email from Wellington Sun, the head of vaccine and regulatory affairs at Moderna, who wrote to Assistant HHS Secretary Robert Kadlec to say that Moderna was in a position to make a vaccine but needed “the full support of the U.S. Government.” Sun asked, “Would you be receptive to a meeting with the senior management of Moderna to discuss our capabilities and how we can contribute to a vaccine that can offer protection of the U.S. and possibly beyond?” On Feb. 24, Kadlec confirmed a meeting.
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