This spring, a team working under the president’s son-in-law produced a plan for an aggressive, coordinated national COVID-19 response that could have brought the pandemic under control. So why did the White House spike it in favor of a shambolic 50-state response?
n March 31, three weeks after the World Health Organization designated the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, a DHL truck rattled up to the gray stone embassy of the United Arab Emirates….
in Washington, D.C., delivering precious cargo: 1 million Chinese-made diagnostic tests for COVID-19, ordered at the behest of the Trump administration.
Normally, federal government purchases come with detailed contracts, replete with acronyms and identifying codes. They require sign-off from an authorized contract officer and are typically made public in a U.S. government procurement database, under a system intended as a hedge against waste, fraud, and abuse.
This purchase did not appear in any government database. Nor was there any contract officer involved. Instead, it was documented in an invoice obtained by Vanity Fair, from a company, Cogna Technology Solutions (its own name misspelled as “Tecnology” on the bill), which noted a total order of 3.5 million tests for an amount owed of $52 million. The “client name” simply noted “WH.”
Over the next three months, the tests’ mysterious provenance would spark confusion and finger-pointing. An Abu Dhabi–based artificial intelligence company, Group 42, with close ties to the UAE’s ruling family, identified itself as the seller of 3.5 million tests and demanded payment. Its requests were routed through various divisions within Health and Human Services, whose lawyers sought in vain for a bona fide contracting officer.
During that period, more than 2.4 million Americans contracted COVID-19 and 123,331 of them died of the illness. First in New York, and then in states around the country, governors, public health experts, and frightened citizens sounded the alarm that a critical shortage of tests, and the ballooning time to get results, were crippling the U.S. pandemic response.
But the million tests, some of which were distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to several states, were of no help. According to documents obtained by Vanity Fair, they were examined in two separate government laboratories and found to be “contaminated and unusable.”
Group 42 representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
On Friday, July 31, the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus, which is investigating the federal response, will hold a hearing to examine the “urgent need” for a comprehensive national plan, at which Dr. Fauci, CDC director Robert Redfield, and Admiral Brett Giroir will testify. Among other things, the subcommittee is probing whether the Trump administration sought to suppress testing, in part due to Trump’s claim at his Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally in June that he ordered staff to “slow the testing down.”
The gamble that son-in-law real estate developers, or Morgan Stanley bankers liaising with billionaires, could effectively stand in for a well-coordinated federal response has proven to be dead wrong. Even the smallest of Jared Kushner’s solutions to the pandemic have entangled government agencies in confusion and raised concerns about illegality.
In the three months after the mysterious test kits arrived at the UAE embassy, diplomats there had been prodding the U.S. government to make good on the $52 million shipment. Finally, on June 26, lawyers for the Department of Health and Human Services sent a cable to the embassy, directed to the company which had misspelled its own name on the original invoice: Cogna Technology Solutions LLC.
The cable stated, “HHS is unable to remit payment for the test kits in question, as the Department has not identified any warranted United States contracting officer” or any contract documents involved in the procurement. The cable cited relevant federal contract laws that would make it “unlawful for the Government to pay for the test kits in question.”
But perhaps most relevant for Americans counting on the federal government to mount an effective response to the pandemic and safeguard their health, the test kits didn’t work. As the Health and Human Services cable to the UAE embassy noted: “When the kits were delivered they were tested in accordance with standard procedures and were found to be contaminated and unusable.”
An FDA spokesperson told Vanity Fair the tests may have been rendered ineffective because of how they were stored when they were shipped from the Middle East. “The reagents should be kept cold,” the spokesperson said.
The Rockefeller plan sought to do exactly what the federal government had chosen not to: create a national infrastructure in a record-short period of time. “Raj doesn’t do non-huge things,” said Andrew Sweet, the Rockefeller Foundation’s managing director for COVID-19 response and recovery. In a discussion with coalition members, Dr. Anthony Fauci called the Rockefeller plan “music to my ears.”
Reaching out to state and local governments, the foundation and its advisers soon became flooded with calls for help from school districts, hospital systems, and workplaces, all desperate for guidance. In regular video calls, a core advisory team that includes Shah, former FDA commissioner Mark McClellan, former National Cancer Institute director Rick Klausner, and Section 32’s Mike Pellini worked through how best to support members of its growing coalition.
Schools “keep hitting refresh on the CDC website and nothing’s changed in the last two months,” Shah told his colleagues in a video meeting in June. In the absence of trustworthy federal guidance, the Rockefeller team hashed out an array of issues: How should schools handle symptomatic and asymptomatic students? What about legal liability? What about public schools that were too poor to even afford a nurse?
(Last week, the CDC issued new guidelines that enthusiastically endorsed reopening schools and downplayed the risks, after coming under heavy pressure from President Trump to revise guidelines that he said were “very tough and expensive.”)
Through a testing-solutions group, the foundation is collaborating with city, state, and other testing programs, including those on Native American reservations, and helping to bolster them.
“They came on board and turbocharged us,” said Ann Lee, CEO of the humanitarian organization CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), cofounded by Lee and the actor Sean Penn. CORE now operates 44 testing sites throughout the U.S., including Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and mobile units within the Navajo Nation, which also offer food and essential supplies.
It may seem impossible for anyone but the federal government to scale up diagnostic testing one hundred-fold through a painstaking and piecemeal approach. But in private conversations, dispirited members of the White House task force urged members of the Rockefeller coalition to persist in their efforts. “Despite what we might be hearing, there is nothing being done in the administration on testing,” one of them was told on a phone call.
“It was a scary and telling moment,” the participant recounted.
Although officials with FEMA and Health and Human Services would not acknowledge that the tests even exist, stating only that there was no official government contract for them, the UAE’s records are clear enough. As a spokesperson for the UAE embassy confirmed, “the US Government made an urgent request for additional COVID-19 test kits from the UAE government. One million test kits were delivered to the US government by April 1. An additional 2.5 million test kits were delivered to the US government by April 20.”
The tests may not have worked, in other words, but Donald Trump would have been pleased at the sheer number of them.