McCaskill calls for probe into smallpox-vaccine boondoggle

Almost two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported on the peculiar case of Siga Technologies, which got a no-bid contract to supply the Pentagon with an experimental vaccine for smallpox, a dead disease, when we have a plentiful supply of traditional vaccine to handle an outbreak.  Siga Technologies has close ties to the Democratic Party with its primary investor, party donor Ronald Perelman, and relatively new board member Andy Stern, the former head of the SEIU and a frequent visitor to the Obama White House.  The deal amounts to almost a half-billion dollars for Perelman and Stern, and the White House appears to have intervened to relax contract requirements and eliminate any hint of competition for the project.

Under those circumstances, it should come as no surprise that a member of Congress wants this deal investigated.  Should it surprise us that the demand comes from a Senate Democrat?

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has asked The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review the Obama administration’s award of a $443 million sole-source contract to a company owned by a major Democratic donor. …

Citing “serious questions” about the contract, the Los Angeles Times reported that McCaskill has asked the inspector general of HHS to investigate. McCaskill is the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting and Oversight.

It turns out that there was another questionable call in awarding the contract to Siga:

In October 2010, Siga announced it had been awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to develop ST-246, despite the fact that the contract stipulated only a small business could be the winning bidder. A smaller company protested, and in response, the Obama Administration blocked everyone except Siga from bidding for a second offering of the contract.

The government’s justification for only talking to Siga was that an antiviral was needed within five years, and Siga was the only company who could do it. That justification troubled some HHS officials, one of whom called it “a stretch” in an internal email obtained by the paper. As much as $115 million in taxpayer money had already been spent developing the drug, which had not been approved by the FDA.

The kicker?  The FDA has no idea how it will approve the drug for use in humans.  In order to do the double-blind testing required for certification, they would have to expose test subjects to live samples of smallpox, since the disease no longer exists outside of a few military laboratories in Russia and the US.  Who would want to volunteer to expose themselves to smallpox and hope they don’t draw the placebo card in the trials?

McCaskill deserves one cheer for demanding an investigation into this contract, but it’s almost certainly not a selfless act.  She faces an almost impossible task in 2012 in winning re-election, especially with the political albatross of Barack Obama hanging around her neck and at the top of the Democratic ticket in November.  A Rasmussen poll taken two weeks ago shows Obama only getting 42% of the vote against Mitt Romney, and only 47% against Newt Gingrich — and that’s while paired off against a divided Republican field.  McCaskill herself can only get 45% or 47% against her two likely Republican challengers in a divided field, too, a bad place for an incumbent to be.  She needs a way to distance herself from Obama, and this is one way she can claim to be a voice of independence in Washington.

Will it work?  Only if the IG doesn’t take her seriously.  If an investigation shows that the White House shoveled even more money into the pockets of donors, a la Solyndra, it’s going to hurt Democrats across the board — including McCaskill.