Not one usable vaccine so far out of Baltimore plant with multi-million-dollar federal contract
By Laura Olson
Angry U.S. House Democrats on Wednesday had one key question as they grilled executives of a Maryland biotech manufacturer forced to dump 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine: Has there been one usable vaccine dose produced as a result of the $271 million paid to date by the U.S. government?
The answer is no, Emergent BioSolutions chief executive officer Robert Kramer acknowledged when pressed during a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
“None of the vaccine that we’ve manufactured has been made available to the U.S.,” Kramer said. Quality control errors have plagued the rollout.
Kramer and Emergent’s founder and executive chairman, Fuad El-Hibri, faced an onslaught of questions from Democratic lawmakers during Wednesday’s hearing about the circumstances surrounding the company’s cross-contamination of the substance used to produce doses of J&J’s one-shot coronavirus vaccine at its Baltimore facility.
The nearly 10 million J&J shots administered in the United States to date have been imported from the company’s plant in the Netherlands.
The incorrect vaccine doses from Emergent were never distributed or administered after being discovered in late March, but the loss was particularly painful at a point when U.S. vaccine demand still outstripped supply.
Production at the plant has remained on hold pending approval from federal regulators.
Lawmakers on the panel also questioned how Emergent was granted an overall $650 million federal contract to boost domestic vaccine production capabilities, of which $271 million has been paid out to date on a monthly basis.
They also asked about the timing of bonuses to and stock sales by top company officials as the Baltimore plant struggled with production and discarded several batches of substance needed for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine last fall.
“As they’re destroying the vaccines, they’re cashing out, taking stock out of the company,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, (D-N.Y.), referencing news reports that Kramer sold $11 million in stock between January and February, prior to the stock price plummeting.
Ahead of the hearing, Democrats on the panel released a memo Wednesday morning detailing initial findings from the committee’s investigation into company operations.
Among the new findings were documents detailing the federal contract that paid Emergent $27 million a month to reserve manufacturing space, regardless of whether the company produced vaccines.
Other documents showed a Trump administration adviser flagged risks at the Emergent plant in June 2020, highlighting “inadequate” staffing plans and the need for “substantial remediation and expansion” of equipment before production could begin.
The memo also detailed at least $360,000 in consulting fees received by Dr. Robert Kadlec, a senior Trump administration official contracted by Emergent from 2012 to 2015, and the bonus received by its executive vice president responsible for manufacturing amid issues at the Baltimore plant.
Emergent’s executives defended their bonuses and stock sales, and denied any political impropriety by Kadlec in connection with the company’s work with J&J and AstraZeneca.
Kramer attributed the cross-contamination of the J&J doses to the rapid pace at which the company attempted to scale up production of not one, but two brand-new vaccines when it was not yet fully staffed.
The company has taken steps to prevent such contamination in the future, including no longer producing AstraZeneca material at the Baltimore facility, he said, adding that J&J officials also are now providing 24-7 oversight of its production.
“I apologize for the failure of our controls, and I give you my personal assurance that I’ll take every step that is needed to resume production safely,” Kramer told the panel.
The company’s struggles came to public view in late March, when quality control checks revealed cross-contamination at that facility, which was producing substances to be used in vaccine doses from both J&J and AstraZeneca.
In April, Food and Drug Administration investigators flagged a series of shortcomings at the plant, including failure to properly disinfect equipment and improperly training employees.
Kramer said the company’s internal review indicates that the cross-contamination occurred when substances transported from the part of the facility that produces the AstraZeneca materials “came in the general vicinity” of where the J&J materials are produced.
Republicans on the panel had few critical questions for the Emergent executives, largely focusing instead on criticizing the House’s mask mandate and President Joe Biden’s decision to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines in order to boost global access to those shots.
Rep. Steve Scalise, (R-La.), the ranking GOP member on the subcommittee, used his questions to underscore that quality control checks caught the contamination and that none of the material left the facility.
Scalise also criticized the FDA for not acting faster to approve use of an estimated 100 million doses’ worth of J&J vaccine substance in batches deemed free of contamination.
“If both Emergent’s and Johnson & Johnson’s internal reviews have said that those 100-plus million doses are OK, why hold them up?” he asked.
Scalise is one of three lawmakers on the panel who have received campaign contributions from Emergent executives, according to the New York Times. He and his campaign organizations received at least $150,000 since 2018.
Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, and Rep. Jamie Raskin, (D-Md.), each received $1,000 during the 2020 election cycle from the company’s political action committee. Raskin told the Times that he had returned the money after being contacted about the contribution.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Raskin pressed Emergent executives on the price tag and requirements of the contract, as well as the circumstances of the contamination, describing that as “a catastrophic failure.”
U.S. House OKs commission to probe Capitol attack, but McConnell objections may doom it
By Jane Norman
The U.S. House voted Wednesday 252-175 to give the go-ahead to the formation of an independent, bipartisan commission that would investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, despite objections from Republican leaders that the scope of the commission was not wide enough and other investigations are ongoing.
Thirty-five Republicans joined with Democrats in backing the measure, which would set up a 10-member commission styled on the panel that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with appointed members split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where its future fell into doubt after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his opposition earlier Wednesday, saying the commission is not needed, and the proposal is “slanted and unbalanced.”
Democrats in a Senate divided 50-50 would need the votes of 10 Republicans to move ahead with debate and a final vote.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer slammed GOP objections as a “shameful” concession to former President Donald Trump, who has urged Republicans to resist the “Democrat trap” of an investigatory commission.
“Once again, they are caving to Donald Trump and proving that the Republican Party is still drunk off the Big Lie,” Schumer (D-New York) said.
The House GOP resistance to the commission came even though Rep. John Katko, a New York Republican, had been given the go-ahead by his leaders to work with Democrats on the bill, following months of disagreement over the party makeup of the commission and more.
Five people died in the Jan. 6 assault, including one U.S. Capitol Police officer.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, said that the commission will be used to attack the GOP. “You see, what’s going to happen with the January 6 commission is the media is going to use this to smear Trump supporters and President Trump for the next few years,” she said.
Rep. Dan Bishop, a North Carolina Republican, said he felt compelled to defend Republican leaders from “one more partisan attack” by Democrats. “If we are concerned about the danger the police officers were in on January 6, and certainly they were, then why don’t we have concern about the violence, the injuries, the deaths that have been faced by police officers across the country?” he asked.
Democrats said the commission is needed to explore how and why the insurrection occurred.
“Let’s be clear—democracy itself was violently attacked on January 6,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat. “We don’t tell the truth about what happened on January 6, it will happen again.”
By Ariana Figueroa
The U.S. House on Wednesday passed a resolution condemning the March 16 mass shooting in Atlanta and reaffirming Congress’ commitment to combating racism and violence against the Asian American community, which has seen a spike in hate crimes since the onset of the pandemic.
The resolution, H.Res. 275, passed, 244-180, though more than a dozen Republicans argued that it was premature in labeling the Atlanta shooting as a hate crime. Overall, 30 Republicans supported it, along with every Democrat voting.
Six women of Asian descent and two others died in the shooting at Asian-owned spas in metro Atlanta, and Fulton County Prosecutor Fanni Willis has said they were targeted because of their race, national origin and gender.
House Republicans also argued that the Atlanta measure was partisan and that it blamed former President Donald Trump for the rise in attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
Throughout the pandemic and his presidency, Trump made racist remarks about the ties between the coronavirus and people of Asian descent.
A study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found a 164% increase in reported hate crimes against Asians in 16 of the largest U.S. cities since last year. Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks hate and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., has reported 6,603 hate incidents from March 19, 2020, to March 31 of this year.
Republicans said the language in the measure was too partisan.
“Today, my colleagues have brought forth a resolution that I believe is laced with political jabs,” Rep. Jodey Arrington, (R-Texas), said on the House floor.
“It seems to be a veiled criticism of President Trump. And [the resolution] needlessly politicizes this horrible tragedy, it is inappropriate, and I believe it is unwise for Congress to presume a motive in the middle of an ongoing investigation.”
However, the resolution does not label the Atlanta shooting as a hate crime and does not mention the former president or condemn his remarks.
It notes that “the use of anti-Asian terminology and rhetoric related to COVID–19, such as the ‘Chinese virus,’ ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘kung flu’ has perpetuated anti-Asian stigma that has resulted in Asian Americans being harassed, assaulted, and scapegoated for the COVID–19 pandemic.”
Georgia Democrats defended the resolution during debate on the House floor Tuesday night.
Rep. Hank Johnson, (D-Ga.), said that the measure “puts the House on record, condemning the racist shootings in Atlanta. That’s what it does, that’s all it does.”
“Atlanta and the South are no stranger to white folks utilizing violence to terrorize and harm communities of color,” Johnson said. “But even though the city’s past and present are marred with white supremacy, Atlanta is also a city too busy to hate. It’s a city that continues to be a catalyst for progress and triumph.”
Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, also Georgia Democrats, both said they had visited with the families of victims killed in the shooting.
“I can tell you the profound pain that emanated from them,” McBath said of the families she visited. “Racism simply has no place in our communities, in this nation.”
Bourdeaux said that the Asian American community has dealt with xenophobic attacks for the past year and that this resolution will “affirm our commitment to combat hate and bigotry against the AAPI community and condemns the hateful actions taken in Atlanta.”
Republicans also argued that the resolution was premature as a trial for the murders has not even begun and investigators have not officially labeled the mass shooting as a hate crime.
“This has nothing to do with the trial,” Rep. Kweisi Mfume, (D-Md.), said. “This has to do with those innocent people murdered.”
Willis, the prosecutor, has said she is seeking the death penalty for Robert Aaron Long, charged in the crime.
Separately, the House passed on Tuesday a bill, S.937, that would establish a position in the Department of Justice to investigate the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic.
It passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, 94-1, with only Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, opposed. He argued that the data system for reporting hate crimes could fall into government overreach.
The legislation passed the House in a 364-62 vote and will head to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.