As the novel coronavirus threatens to overwhelm the U.S. public health systems, the Pentagon is withholding more than $104 million from the military’s most important chemical and biological research facilities—including a lab that conducts cutting-edge work on infectious diseases—according to a senior Pentagon official.
And that’s only one aspect of the military’s financial shortfall in the unfolding crisis. A document briefed to the top brass of the Army on Thursday and obtained by The Daily Beast from a second Defense Department official reveals that the service’s response to the coronavirus outbreak is short of funding by almost $1 billion.
Among the labs affected is the military’s premier biological defense institution: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), located at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Also impacted is another Maryland lab, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
USAMRIID stores and researches dangerous pathogens, including Ebola and anthrax. Safety concerns from the Centers for Disease Control have occasionally prompted brief shutdowns, most recently in August over a wastewater issue. But its work over the decades has contributed to the development of numerous vaccines for ricin, botulism, hantavirus, and more, including a vaccine approved in September for combatting smallpox and monkeypox. During the August shutdown, USAMRIID was working on an Ebola vaccine.
“This administration has failed to take adequate steps to prepare for an outbreak of this magnitude. President Trump has not delivered the adequate testing he has promised, allowing America to fall behind countries far smaller than the United States. Additionally, shortsighted staffing decisions and funding choices at the CDC and USAMRIID have hamstrung and delayed critical steps needed to ensure the safety of this country and our constituents,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) told The Daily Beast.
Brown was one of six Maryland legislators who wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper in early February asking why the Pentagon is withholding the $104 million in payments to the labs. “Their research helps to protect the American warfighter from biological threats and investigate disease outbreaks and threats to public health,” they warned, specifically referencing the need to “confront the coronavirus global health emergency.”
Undersecretary Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s chief for acquisition and sustainment, confirmed that the money still hasn’t flowed to the labs as of two weeks ago.
“[T]he laboratories were unable to perform much of the planned work due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shutdown of USAMRIID and concerns of potential financial mismanagement at both of the laboratories,” Lord wrote on Feb. 29 in a letter shared with The Daily Beast. The Frederick News-Post last month reported an inspector-general investigation into the lab’s financing.
Lord said the CDC has subsequently “authorized limited work” at USAMRIID and the Army is working with a different Pentagon office to ensure “transparency and accountability” of funding at the labs. The Pentagon’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program is “continuing to negotiate work proposals for research efforts that the Army medical research labs can perform,” Lord wrote.
Pentagon representatives did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast.
For the Army more broadly, a financial document obtained by The Daily Beast found massive shortfalls for detecting, treating, and preventing COVID-19 from spreading throughout 1.2 million soldiers and Army employees, as well as roughly 3 million dependent family members.
The total cost estimate briefed to leaders on Thursday comes with a price tag of more than $955 million, leaving the Army in the red by more than $942 million.
Among the total amount, “disease response” was estimated to cost more than $81 million; however, less than $13 million had been funded from the Defense Health Program, according to the document. Disease response includes line items such as vaccines and anti-viral development.
The document, marked unclassified but for official use only, was created by the assistant secretary of the Army for financial management and comptroller, an office led by John Whitley, a Trump appointee, who serves as the principal adviser to senior Army leadership on budgetary matters.
The Pentagon didn’t withhold the money from the Army labs because of either last year’s budget-tightening review or the budget raid to fund President Trump’s border wall. But several legislators expressed consternation that billions Congress never approved went from the Pentagon to the wall, while the military now faces shortfalls for what it can do to help combat COVID-19.
“It has taken weeks for President Trump to declare a national emergency for this serious public health crisis. His delays haven’t gone unnoticed, considering this administration has routinely invoked national security emergencies without merit for the president’s own political gain. Namely, President Trump’s decision to divert billions of dollars in defense funds toward an ineffective border wall that is absolutely useless in our efforts to protect Americans from this virus,” Brown said.
“As the public health crisis that is COVID-19 grows, it’s increasingly likely that the National Guard and Reserve will be called in to assist state and local civilian authorities respond to this pandemic,” added Ben Garmisa, a spokesperson for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who on Friday called on Esper to prepare for accelerated reserve-component aid to civilian authorities.
“Activating those units requires the DoD to reimburse those costs, and that those funds need to come from somewhere. That’s exactly why Donald Trump’s decision to steal money for his border wall from the same accounts DoD uses to fund reimbursements was so shortsighted and wrongheaded.”
Currently, the primary military contribution to coronavirus confrontation has been to quarantine citizens coming back from China and the two infected cruise ships.
State governors are still tasked with individual decisions about activating their National Guard units “who are doing support tasks like delivering meals, cleaning schools, and helping with planning efforts for future state responses,” said Monica Matoush, a spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee.
Engineering, water purification, medical, and other capabilities within Guard and Reserve units would be impactful, Duckworth wrote to Esper. School closures will create an immediate need to feed low-income children, something Duckworth said the Pentagon can mitigate.
“With its stockpiles of rations, DoD is uniquely positioned to serve as a backstop should community alternatives to school meals falter,” she wrote Esper.
— Noah Shachtman contributed reporting