WASHINGTON — The nation’s former top vaccine official warned Thursday that dysfunction in the federal government may lead to the “darkest winter in history” if the Trump administration does not quickly implement a comprehensive plan to combat coronavirus.
"The window is closing to address this pandemic because we still do not have a standard, centralized, coordinated plan to take this nation through this response,” said Dr. Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who was removed from his post last month and has filed a whistle-blower complaint.
Testifying at a House hearing, Bright also questioned the 12-18 month timeline for a vaccine proposed by the Trump administration, which would require everything to go “perfectly.” He noted that vaccines can take up to 10 years to develop.
“My concern is if we rush too quickly, and consider cutting out critical steps, we may not have a full assessment of the safety of that vaccine,” he said. “So, it’s still going to take some time.”
Bright’s testimony painted a bleak picture of a federal government that failed to adequately prepare for the pandemic and is still missing opportunities to obtain materials necessary for mass distribution of a vaccine and protecting health care workers ahead of a possible resurgence of cases in the fall.
That failure to prepare cost lives, Bright acknowledged, and the US death toll of 84,000 as of Thursday would likely be lower if scientists’ warnings were heeded. “Initially our nation was not as prepared as we should have been, as we could have been," he said. "Some scientists that raised early warning signals were overlooked.”
He also warned that the administration lacked a plan “to fairly and equitably distribute” the only drug that has shown some effectiveness in treating coronavirus thus far, remdesivir, and still did not have a comprehensive testing plan.
“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.
The hearing followed testimony Tuesday by the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who warned of “suffering and death” to come if states lift distancing regulations before seeing a sustained decrease in cases. The tone of both hearings sharply clashed with the upbeat message promulgated by President Trump, who has said that the country has “prevailed” on testing and that the virus will “go away" even without a vaccine.
Trump criticized Bright to reporters at the White House before departing for a trip to Allentown, Pa., to tour a medical supply facility. “I watched this guy for a little while this morning,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, to me he’s nothing more than a really disgruntled, unhappy person.” He criticized Fauci for his testimony, as well, saying on Wednesday it was unacceptable that Fauci urged caution in opening schools..
The president, repeating his frequent boast despite ongoing criticism, said his administration has done “a great job” in responding to the pandemic.
Bright testified that his repeated warnings to stock up on masks and other crucial supplies to battle the virus were met with “indifference” and “excuses” when he began sounding the alarm in mid-January. He said that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield ignored his request for virus samples from China in January, slowing the development of treatments and vaccines.
Bright, an immunologist who rose through the ranks of the federal agency after he joined in 2010, was reassigned to a lower-level role in the government after he resisted the administration’s push to widely distribute the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in late March. The drug was not proven safe or effective to treat coronavirus, Bright argued. He was given a less important role in the National Institutes of Health in April. Trump again touted the supposed benefits of hydroxychloroquine on Thursday, which studies have not shown to be effective in treating the virus.
“We have the world’s greatest scientists, let us lead,” Bright testified to the room full of masked lawmakers on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, flanked by a bottle of Lysol wipes. “Let us speak without fear of retribution.”
Some Republicans on the panel asked why Bright did not go to the Health and Human Services Department inspector general or bring his concerns to Congress earlier, while others questioned why he did not personally raise concerns about the lack of adequate masks before January. (That inspector general has been ordered replaced after angering Trump with a report on mask shortages.)
The soft-spoken Bright defended himself calmly, and revealed he was being treated for high blood pressure due to the stress of losing his job and becoming a whistle-blower. Later, mask manufacturer Mike Bowen, who testified after Bright about the mask shortage problem, defended the doctor.
“I’m a Republican. I voted for President Trump and I admire Dr. Bright,” Bowen testified. “I believe him.”
Bright said his lowest moment over the past few months was when Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech in Texas, contacted him in January to warn that the US N95 mask supply was “decimated" as the virus began traveling the globe.
“He said, ‘We are in deep shit,’ ” Bright said. The immunologist told HHS leadership of his concerns about the masks but “got no response.”
“I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action,” Bright recalled. “That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production to save the lives of those health care workers and we didn’t act.”
He testified that he finally found a sympathetic ear in the White House in the form of trade adviser Peter Navarro, who distributed a memo urging the government to produce more masks in February after speaking with Bright. But orders for protective equipment were still not placed until March, he said.
The administration pushed back on Bright’s claim that he was demoted in retaliation for his objection to widely distributing hydroxychloroquine, saying in a statement that he was transferred to lead “a bold new $1 billion testing program at NIH, critical to saving lives and reopening America.”
“Rick Bright’s assumption that others were not concerned with and working on various workstreams related to COVID-19 preparedness is bizarre and false,” HHS said in a statement Thursday.
But the federal whistle-blower agency made a preliminary determination this month that there was a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” in Bright’s reassignment.
Bowen testified later on Thursday that his offer to make millions more N95 masks at his Texas factory in January was rejected. “I’m angry because I’ve done this for so long and I’ve been ignored for so long,” he said. “We could have protected America’s health care workers and patients."
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.