A top immunologist who ran a key federal agency that responds to infectious disease threatsbefore being demoted testified on Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Rick Bright has filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was forced out after he would not promote the use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that at the time was being pushed by President Trump as a possible treatment for coronavirus. Studies have since found that the drug does not benefit COVID-19 patients.
Bright, who ran Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, on Thursday told lawmakers the US needs stronger leadership on the coronavirus response and warned of dire consequences if more action is not taken. Here are some of the most important moments from his testimony.
Bright warned that if action is not taken, the US will have 'the darkest winter in modern history’ because of a resurgence of the virus
“Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history,” Bright wrote in his prepared remarks, which he reiterated at the outset of the hearing.
He called for the US to create a national testing strategy that ramps up production of testing supplies and makes them more widely available, increase public education efforts around mask usage and personal hygiene, and stock up on personal protective equipment.
“The virus is here. It’s everywhere. We need to be able to find it, isolate it, and stop it,” he said.
Bright several times made pointed criticisms of what he called a lack of leadership in the federal response
Bright told the committee members that there was a dearth of leadership in the federal response to the pandemic at the outset, and that no one was taking charge to put response plans into action.
"I can say that those plans have been in place and it’s disappointing they were not pulled out in January of this year and followed. They were not put on the table with a strong leader indicating, ‘These are our plans, everyone fall in line, and follow through with this plan,' " he said.
“We don’t have a single point of leadership right now for this response. And we don’t have a master plan for this response,” Bright said at another point in the hearing.
Bright offered a vivid description of the moment he realized the coronavirus pandemic would be a crisis in the US
Asked by Representative John Sarbanes to describe a moment where he had “that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach” about the federal response to the pandemic, Bright cited an e-mail he received from a US-based medical supply manufacturer that warned of mask shortages.
Mike Bowen, an executive at Texas-based Prestige Ameritech had reached out to government officials in January with an offer to ramp up production of N-95 respirator masks, an offer that was ultimately declined.
“I’ll never forget the e-mails I received from Mike Bowen indicating that our masks 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 said.
Bright said he raised the issue at “the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response.”
He said that at the time, there was a vanishing window of opportunity to ramp up production of personal protective equipment so health care workers could safely treat coronavirus patients.
“In that moment I knew we were going to have a crisis,” he said.
Bright warned that in addition to a national testing strategy, a vaccine plan doesn’t exist
"We don’t have (a vaccine plan) yet, and it is a significant concern,” he said, referring to the US capacity to quickly manufacture and distribute a vaccine to all Americans once one becomes available.
He said that because no one company can produce enough of the vaccine for all people globally, or even for all Americans, the federal government would need to support vaccine production.
“We need to have a strategy and plan in place now to make sure that we can not only fill that vaccine — make it, distribute it — but administer it in a fair and equitable plan,” Bright said.
Bright said he was pushed out when he warned his superiors about the pandemic response
Bright told lawmakers he was pushing “urgently” to increase US supply of remdesivir. He said his warnings about a lack of the drug went unheeded and there was no action taken to come up with a plan to acquire or produce more doses. He said that in response, he was cut out of key meetings.
“I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion and I was removed from those meetings,” Bright told lawmakers.
On Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services slammed Bright in a statement, according to Stat.
“Mr. Bright has not yet shown up for work, but continues to collect his $285,010 salary, while using his taxpayer-funded medical leave to work with partisan attorneys who are politicizing the response to COVID-19," an agency spokesperson said.
President Trump also tweeted his displeasure ahead of the hearing.
I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, never met him or even heard of him, but to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 14, 2020