Dr. Rick Bright, the whistleblower abruptly fired after pushing back against the Trump administration, described an urgent need to develop a national plan to combat the coronavirus to avoid disastrous overlap with the regular flu season. Failure to do so will be “devastating for our health care systems [and] for Americans,” he said in congressional testimony on Thursday.
“I believe we could have done better,” Bright told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. “I believe there were critical steps we did not take in time.”
“The urgent need for funding at the outset of a pandemic is something that we’ve known about,” Bright said. President Donald Trump has faced relentless criticism for his administration’s delay in forming a coherent federal response to the crisis that has crippled the economy and killed more than 84,000 Americans so far.
“We knew going into this pandemic that critical medical equipment would be in short supply. I began getting alerts from industry colleagues in mid- and late January telling me that, from an outside view, the supply chain was diminishing rapidly, telling me that other countries that we relied on to supply many of these masks were blocking exports and stopping transfer of these masks to the United States,” Bright told the subcommittee.
When he alerted Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to these alarming shortages, however, Bright said the responses he received ranged from officials claiming they were “too busy,” they didn’t know who was in charge, or they had a sick child at home and would deal with the issue later.
“I’ll never forget the emails I received from Mike Bowen indicating that our mask supply, our N95 respirator supply, was completely decimated, and he said, ‘We’re in deep shit. The world is. And we need to act,’” Bright recalled.
Bowen runs Prestige Ameritech, a Texas-based mask manufacturer. His warning was previously reported by The Washington Post in a story outlining how the federal government turned down his offer to manufacture 1.7 million N95 masks per week back in January.
“I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS,” Bright said, “and got no response.”
Bright was removed last month as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services charged with developing drugs and vaccines. It was created in 2006 as part of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act signed into law by President George W. Bush after passing easily in Congress.
Bright was reassigned to the National Institutes of Health. A federal agency has said it found “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Trump White House fired him in retaliation for telling the administration how it needed to prepare to combat COVID-19, including testing on hydroxychloroquine, an unproven drug touted by Trump.
Several Republican members of the subcommittee argued that some doctors had been using hydroxychloroquine to treat their patients with COVID-19, which is true. But Bright is far from the only expert who feels there is too much risk in widely promoting it without having conducted large clinical studies to determine the potential downsides.
“I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion,” Bright told the committee, saying that he was then removed from planning meetings.
Bright said the U.S. lacks a plan to rein in the virus, warning that “time is running out.” In his prepared remarks, he stressed the importance of securing a supply chain for vital health care equipment needed by hospitals in addition to materials that will be required to mass-produce treatments and vaccines.
Failure to secure and increase supply of N95 masks, swabs and syringes, he said, “put a lot of lives at risk in our frontline health care workers,” and the federal government’s failure to work together on a plan to deal with the virus certainly “lengthened our timeline to reopening.”
Trump has dismissed Bright as a “disgruntled” employee ― a charge Bright rebuffed.
“What I’m trying to do is save lives,” he told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell.
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