Today, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), demanded answers from federal officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the Administration’s COVID-19 communication failures and testing strategies as Omicron variant cases surge.
Senator Burr questions federal officials on communication failures and testing strategies
In today’s hearing, Ranking Member Burr called on the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), Dawn O’Connell, to clarify the Administration’s plan to procure 500 million COVID-19 over-the-counter tests after they failed to anticipate the additional testing we need in the face of the Omicron variant:
Senator Burr: “So, is what you’re telling me is that they’ve got 50 million tests in warehouses in the United States and all we did was access that inventory?”
Dawn O’Connell, ASPR: “That is my understanding.”
Senator Burr: “This is a very, very important piece. When you’ve got companies that don’t manufacture tests and all of the sudden we’re giving them $190 million contracts for about 14 million home tests and their expertise is the importation of vodka.”
Senator Burr continued: “Right now, Ms. O’Connell is struggling to buy 500 million tests where 47-50 million there that leaves another 450 million to purchase. And we are going to distributors trying to buy their inventory, not going to manufactures trying to buy their capacity. Something is not right here, guys, on testing…I say to all of you now: ‘testing is broken.’”
Senator Burr continued to press Ms. O’Connell on these shortage concerns and overall confusing messaging coming from the Administration:
Senator Burr: “Well, I'm not sure you addressed my concern, which is it's more profitable to sell [tests] to the federal government than it is to put it on retail, based upon the reimbursements that this Administration has now required of insurers. I hope you'll think about that. This is alarming to me. And as we've all displayed, there are no tests out there. There are no tests on the shelves of [pharmacies] that people can go in, buy, and take home and do it. So, it makes even more confusing CDC’s policy that if you want to take a test, go ahead and take it. It's not required, but you can take it. You can’t get it.”
Ranking Member Burr concluded his remarks by demanding greater transparency from federal officials on the billions of dollars appropriated by Congress for testing:
Senator Burr: “I, for the life of me, can’t figure out after $82 billion…how you can let [test manufacturers] close two lines because there wasn’t any business. These are some of the most premiere manufacturers in the world that we’ve let get out of the mass manufacturing of home test business. If I'm wrong, tell me I am. I respect all four of you in a huge way, but I also express my disapproval very quickly. And that's what I'm doing today. Anything you want to add to that Ms. O’Connell?”
O’Connell: “Let me just clarify, of course, that the initial contracts you're speaking of, towards the 500 million, were the available inventory that these distributors had. These are the distributor contracts. The manufacturer contracts are currently being worked, you will see that capacity come on quickly.”
Senator Burr concluded: “We're here to support. What you need, tell us. But don't think that we're just going to sit here and print money without a full accountability of where it has gone. And, I hope the [HHS] Secretary is listening to [this] conversation today…There has got to be accountability on the money and the way it's spent.”
Last week, Senators Burr and Blunt sent a letter urging HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to detail the lack of a federal testing strategy despite Congress appropriating more than $80 billion for testing capabilities over the last two years. This request has still been unanswered.
This is the Committee’s fifth hearing with federal officials on the COVID-19 pandemic in the 117th Congress. In his opening statement, Ranking Member Burr criticized the Administration’s lack of transparency to the American people, its inability to anticipate the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its communication failures as Omicron variant cases surge.
To read Ranking Member Burr’s full prepared opening statement, click here.
Today’s full Senate HELP Committee hearing can be found here.