Germ Boys and Yes Men
Bioshield quickly became the main focus of OPHEP's work. For eighteen months, according to current and former HHS officials, Simonson worked diligently with Cheney's office to win Congressional approval for the program. Cheney scared up support for the plan, personally telling lawmakers Bioshield was "life on the planet stuff." Henderson says that Simonson's close contacts at the White House were "very helpful working with the Bioshield legislation."
At the time, Hauer was still heading OPHEP, while Simonson was Thompson's deputy legal counsel. According to former and current HHS officials, a power struggle developed between Hauer--who had already angered the Vice President's office with his opposition to the smallpox plan--and the well-connected Simonson. Hauer was critical of the way Bioshield was being thrown together and disagreed with Simonson on the priorities emerging within HHS, which increasingly privileged "war on terror"-related programs over preparing city and state governments and agencies for disasters, as well as over plans vital to public health, like preparing for a flu epidemic.
"Bioshield was a disaster," says Hauer. "It was done half-assed.... Instead of doing it right, they rushed to get it done so that they could announce it in the State of the Union." Hauer alleges that while Bioshield was being developed, the White House political office, led by Karl Rove, was seeking to undermine his authority. A couple of years before, Hauer, a Democrat, had aroused the ire of his former boss, Rudy Giuliani, after he publicly endorsed Mark Green over Michael Bloomberg in the 2001 New York City mayoral race. When he subsequently went to Washington to work for HHS, his title remained "acting" assistant secretary because the White House refused to officially approve his appointment. "The White House was not going to confirm me, particularly after the folks in New York were calling saying I supported a Democrat. I'm a Democrat. It was as simple as that." Still, he says, Thompson backed him and retained him at HHS despite the political pressure.
By March 2003, however, Hauer had been stripped of much of his authority, and he knew his days were numbered. Simonson intervened to prevent Hauer from attending a briefing in Thompson's office on Bioshield. In a March 24 e-mail to Thompson's briefing coordinator Simonson wrote, "Bioshield does not involve Jerry so I am unclear as to why he invited [sic]."
With the 2004 election a year away, and the environment at the agency becoming more hostile, Hauer says he could not in good faith continue to work for the Administration. "The political side of this White House is very vindictive," says Hauer. He says it was made clear to him that if he was not willing to endorse the President and "attend events," it was time to move on. "I don't want to be disrespectful of the office of the presidency," Hauer says. "I just felt that things needed a change, so I could not be part of the Administration and not support the White House. Plus, the fact is there was enormous frustration at HHS in large part because of Stewart."
In April 2004, with Hauer out of the way, Bush named Simonson director of OPHEP. Hauer says that with Simonson the Administration has "somebody they know will go along with pretty much anything they want." On July 21, a day before the 9/11 commission issued its findings, Bush signed Bioshield into law. The White House released a statement saying, "Today's action is just the latest step the President has taken to win the War on Terror and protect our homeland."
Even within the "war on terror" community, Bioshield has proved controversial. That's because more than 80 percent of the nearly $1 billion allocated under the program has gone to a scandal-plagued company that has never successfully produced an FDA-licensed vaccine. In November 2004 California-based VaxGen was handed one of the largest government vaccine contracts in history. The company is largely known for its failed AIDS vaccine, and just a few months before VaxGen won the Bioshield contract, the Nasdaq took the unusual step of delisting it from trading because of financial irregularities. So why did it get the contract? "I have no idea why VaxGen was selected," admits Henderson, who remains chair of the influential Secretary's Advisory Council at HHS. "It's not for me to decide whether it's a good idea or not." But it was for Simonson and his staff. And as with many Bush Administration contracts, several signs point to cronyism as the deciding factor--among them: VaxGen CEO Lance Gordon is a longtime associate of one of Simonson's top deputies on Bioshield, Dr. Phil Russell, former chief of Army medical research.
Now a powerful group of Republican lawmakers is pushing "Bioshield 2" through Congress. The legislation would strip people injured by vaccines of their right to sue manufacturers and would virtually eliminate pharmaceutical corporate accountability. The legislation would also make the newly created Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency the only federal agency exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
Simonson did not return numerous messages left for him at his office. But Thompson stands by him, as does Henderson. "This is not necessarily somebody who has got a lot of depth of background here, but you can get people who have a variety of expertise. I would liken it to having a CEO in a company," says Henderson, adding that Simonson "may not have been qualified but he is a real learner.... We are where we are today because Stewart pressed this very hard. He read a lot, he talked a lot, he learned a lot."
Perhaps not quite enough, because where we are today, according to many public health experts, is unprepared.