Ousted scientist says his pandemic warnings were dismissed as 'commotion'

Rick Bright arrives to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on Thursday.
Rick Bright arrives to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on Thursday.
Shawn Thew/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Updated: 5:40 p.m.

Rick Bright, a career government scientist-turned-whistleblower, told a congressional panel Thursday that without a stronger federal response, the coronavirus threatens to make 2020 the "darkest winter in modern history."

Bright testified before the Democratic-led House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, which called the hearing after Bright filed a whistleblower complaint about being removed from his post as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

At the hearing Thursday, which began with a moment of silence for the more than 80,000 people who have died in the United States as a result of COVID-19, Bright said he believes "we could have done better" in responding to the coronavirus back in January when its deadly effects became apparent.

He told lawmakers that he raised the need to obtain samples of the virus in meetings with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Once the virus began spreading, he said, his alarms were not responded to with action. Bright said he was told that his "urgings were causing a commotion," and he was removed from relevant meetings.

Bright added that "time is running out" and that the window is closing to address the pandemic "because we still do not have a standard, centralized, coordinated plan to take our nation through this response."

He spoke at length about his concerns with the supply of personal protective equipment. He said as far back as 2007 there were shortages of equipment such as N95 respirators.

Bright said he will "never forget" emails he received from the head of a Texas company that produces surgical masks saying that the nation's supply chain for PPE was completely decimated as the coronavirus pandemic began.

"We're in deep s***," the email from Michael Bowen said, according to Bright.

Bowen, who testified after Bright, is vice president of surgical mask producer Prestige Ameritech. Bowen said he sent emails to Bright and other federal officials over a 13-year period, warning of a shortage of U.S.-made masks.

Michael Bowen, vice president of surgical mask producer Prestige Ameritech, testifies Thursday.
Michael Bowen, vice president of surgical mask producer Prestige Ameritech, testifies Thursday.
Shawn Thew/AP

"America has a weakness for low prices," Bowen said, when talking about U.S. entities purchasing masks from abroad.

At one point, Bowen said he was a "lifelong Republican, and I'm embarrassed" by how the pandemic has been handled.

Bright testified that supply chain issues continue and that some respirators being used were poorly manufactured.

"Nurses are rushing into hospitals thinking they're protected and they're not," he said.

Bright also cast doubt on the likelihood of a vaccine being developed in the next 12 to 18 months.

"A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12- to 18-month time frame, if everything goes perfectly," he said. "We've never seen everything go perfectly."

The Trump administration response

Azar pushed back on Bright's testimony, telling reporters at the White House on Thursday, "Everything he's complaining about was achieved."

He noted that the administration has acquired respirators and embarked upon a "Manhattan Project" for vaccines called Operation Warp Speed.

"While we're launching Operation Warp Speed, he's not showing up for work to be part of that," Azar said. "His allegations do not hold water. They do not hold water."

President Trump said that he had seen some of Bright's testimony.

"I watched this guy for a little while this morning. To me, he's nothing more than a really disgruntled, unhappy person," Trump said, echoing an earlier dismissal of Bright.

The complaint

Bright contends that he was removed from his post as director of BARDA by top HHS officials because he was pushing for coronavirus funding to go toward "safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not for drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit," according to his prepared testimony, released Tuesday by the subcommittee.

Bright contends that his transfer to a lower-ranking post at HHS came because of his reluctance to promote use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat patients with COVID-19, which had been touted by Trump and others.

Bright's attorneys say the Office of Special Counsel has determined there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that his removal from his post at BARDA was retaliatory and therefore prohibited. The OSC says it can't comment on an open case.

As Bright testified, HHS issued a statement saying his whistleblower complaint "is filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation. HHS said it is reviewing the complaint and strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations made by Rick Bright."

The statement added that Bright did not see "the full strategic and operational picture across HHS and the Administration as a whole — because his role within HHS was more limited."

‘The darkest winter’

Bright painted a gloomy picture of a possible future unless the Trump administration responds more quickly and more strongly to the coronavirus.

"It is painfully clear that we were not as prepared as we should have been," Bright said in his prepared remarks. "We missed early warning signals and we forgot important pages from our pandemic playbook."

"Our window of opportunity is closing," Bright warned. "If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.

"The undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID-19 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system," he added. "Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history."

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