Health Highlights: Jan. 28, 2021

Millions of Pandemic Preparedness Dollars Misspent: Report

Millions of dollars meant for pandemic preparedness and vaccine research were used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for unrelated activities such as removing office furniture, administrative expenses, legal services, news subscriptions and the salaries of other department employees, an investigation reveals.

Between 2007 and 2016 the money meant for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) was used by HHS as a “slush fund,” according to a report released Wednesday by a federal watchdog, the Office of the Special Counsel, The New York Times reported.

This misuse of funding for BARDA was so common that employees named it the “Bank of BARDA,” but the actual amount of money that was misappropriated wasn’t listed in the report.

HHS didn’t inform Congress about this diversion of money meant for BARDA, a potential violation of federal law, the Times reported.

“I am deeply concerned about [the] 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,” Henry Kerner, the special counsel, wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden.

“Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade,” he added.

Last year, the Trump administration fired the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, the HHS official who oversees BARDA and is responsible for its budget. Biden hasn’t named a replacement, The Times reported.