Fund Meant for Vaccine Research Misused at Least $14.5M for Unrelated Expenses for Almost a Decade

Federal funds intended for medical research have been misused for nearly a decade, according to investigation findings reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department's inspector general conducted a probe to see whether funds allotted to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an arm of the HHS, were being misused.

The investigation was overseen by the United States Office of Special Counsel, and so far it has revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars were not used for their intended purpose. Funds for BARDA were intended for the development of drugs, therapies and vaccines.

However, an unnamed whistleblower claimed that officials in the HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), which oversees BARDA, used the funds for unrelated purposes, such as salaries and the removal of office furniture.

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A pharmacist prepares a COVID-19 vaccine for recipients on January 26 in Wenatchee, Washington. Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images/Getty

"The report contains evidence that ASPR used BARDA's [advanced research and development] funds...to pay for the removal of ASPR office furniture, ASPR administrative expenses and news subscriptions, legal services used by ASPR, ASPR's internal resource management system, and the salaries of personnel who did not work for BARDA," U.S. Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

The investigation was initiated following a whistleblower's charges that the ASPR wrongly used the federal funds from the 2010 to 2019 fiscal years under the Obama and Trump administrations.

The whistleblower also said the ASPR did not accurately report this misuse of funds to Congress, according to the Post.

"I am deeply concerned about [the] apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funds meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic," Kerner said in his letter.

"Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade," Kerner continued. The inspector general found that staff often referred to the agency as the "bank of BARDA."

Kerner added that the inspector general had already concluded the ASPR violated the "Purpose Statute," a federal law established to ensure that funds allotted by Congress are used for their intended purpose.

Kerner also noted that the inspector general is reviewing whether the ASPR violated the Antideficiency Act, another law that governs the use of federal funds.

An accounting firm is conducting an audit of the agency, according to The Post.

The total amount of misused funding is not specified. However, a spokesperson from the special counsel's office told the Post that investigators are "confident" the ASPR wrongly used millions of dollars in funds.

For example, the inspector general flagged the ASPR's $517 million in management and administrative costs over a decade, which weren't provided to Congress in adequate detail.

The inspector general also found that between 2013 and 2017, BARDA paid $897,491 in salaries to staff members who didn't work for the agency.

Newsweek reached out to ASPR for comment but didn't hear back in time for publication.