A whistleblower complaint filed earlier this week partially solves the mystery of how the country with the most expensive health care system on earth wound up unable to provide enough face masks to protect its workers. The report from Rick Bright, who was ousted from his job as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a division of Health and Human Services, in April, also provides a new villain in the tragic saga of the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis: Robert Kadlec.
Though officially tasked with quickly mobilizing a national response to public health crises, Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response and formerly Bright’s boss, is described in the report as a petty tyrant who ignored, mocked, and thwarted Bright’s repeated efforts to address the imminent shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment in January and February, as the virus began spreading across the country.
In a lengthy, detailed account that reads like a script from a horror movie and will likely earn Kadlec the lasting enmity of everyone who has lost a front-line worker to the virus, Bright lays out a series of unsuccessful and increasingly desperate attempts to push Kadlec and HHS Secretary Alex Azar to recognize and address the looming shortage of personal protective equipment. The attempts to call attention to the crisis began in mid-January, when Bright, a virologist who has spent decades in government preparing for public health emergencies, called for a senior-level meeting to coordinate the response to the coming pandemic.
But Bright’s bosses were unconvinced of the need for the meeting of the “disaster leadership group.” In a January 18 email, Kadlec responded to Bright’s suggestion that he was “not sure if that is a time sensitive urgency.”
Among the concerns Bright repeatedly raised to Kadlec was the need for N95 face masks, which are used to protect health care workers from infectious diseases. Bright, who had served as head of BARDA since 2016, realized that the masks and other equipment would be in short supply. On January 21, Mike Bowen, co-owner of Prestige Ameritech, the largest surgical mask producing company in the U.S., contacted Bright to express concern about the shortage of the masks.
In an email sent the following day, Bowen offered a solution. “He explained that Prestige Ameritech had four N95 manufacturing lines that were currently not operational, but could be reactivated ‘in a dire situation and with government help,’” according to the whistleblower report. But Bright couldn’t get sign-off from his boss, Kadlec, to get the emergency production started.
The problem partly stemmed from long-simmering tensions between Bright and Kadlec. According to the complaint, since he was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, Kadlec had repeatedly pushed Bright to award government contracts to politically connected companies, including one tied to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Prior to that, Kadlec had served on the staff of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who is now best known for dumping his stocks while assuring the public about the coronavirus.
In any case, Kadlec did not take kindly to Bright’s urgent pleas about the pandemic. On January 23, the disaster leadership group finally met. Bright spoke about the fact that BARDA didn’t have funds available to address the emerging epidemic, as well as his concern that he would be forced to redirect funds from existing projects until new funding was made available.
But at that meeting and another held that day, both Kadlec and Azar seemed surprised by Bright’s level of alarm, according to the report. While Bright described the dire need for action and supplies, Kadlec and Azar “asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out of the United States. Secretary Azar further indicated that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] would look at the issue of travel bans to keep the virus contained.”
Rather than getting a response from his superiors, Bright’s urgency got him excluded from the next meeting about the coronavirus. According to the complaint, Bryan Shuy, Kadlec’s chief of staff, told Bright after the meeting that his request for urgent funding set off “quite a shit storm” and had offended HHS leadership.
“Rick, I think we’re in deep shit. The world.”
Meanwhile, Bowen, the co-owner of the mask company, continued to email Bright about the mask shortage, explaining that his company was getting requests from China and that nearly half of the masks in the U.S. are imported from Chinese manufacturers. “If the supply stops, US hospital will run out of masks. No way to prevent it,” Bowen warned in a January 25 email.
That night, Bright emailed Kadlec about the problem. “Hearing face mask supply is also getting very low as China and HK trying to procure,” he wrote to his boss. “I’ve alerted [Critical Infrastructure Protection, a division of HHS over which Kadlec has authority] on this throughout week. May need to consider options here also before things are gone.”
On January 27, after several emails to Bright, Bowen, who had yet to receive authorization to proceed with mask production, sent another email, saying, “Rick, I think we’re in deep shit. The world.” That same day, although the agency hadn’t addressed the severe mask shortage, an HHS spokesperson told Axios that the Strategic National Stockpile, a collection of lifesaving supplies for public health emergencies, which is overseen by BARDA, “holds millions of face masks as well as N95 respirators that could be used if needed in responding to a public health emergency when local supplies are exhausted and aren’t available from commercial suppliers.”
Two days later, still without a contract, Bowen sent yet another desperate email. “This week, we sent 1,000,000 masks to China and Hong Kong,” he wrote to Bright. “I think China will cut off masks to the USA. If so, US hospitals are going to have a very rough time, as up to half of the supply is made in China. A horrible situation will become unbearable.”
On February 7, Bright made the case for ramping up federal production of N95 masks at a meeting of the disaster leadership group but was shot down. While Bright again warned of imminent shortages, two members of Kadlec’s staff, Laura Wolf and Jessica Falcon, told him that there was no need for immediate action.
“Dr. Wolf and Dr. Falcon responded that the plan was to monitor for any supply chain issues and, if needed, ask the CDC to update its guidelines to tell people who ‘don’t need’ masks to not buy them,” as Bright’s complaint explains.
After weeks of being foiled by his superiors, Bright met on Saturday and Sunday, February 8 and 9, with Trump adviser Peter Navarro, who seemed to share his urgency about the need for masks. The two drafted a memo sent to the White House coronavirus task force that called for the U.S. to immediately halt the export of N95 masks and ramp up production.
But Kadlec did not seem to appreciate being subject to a directive that had clearly come from Bright, who was both a longtime adversary and beneath him in the pecking order. Rather than acknowledge that thousands of lives were at stake and immediately swing into action, the assistant secretary of disaster preparedness complained to his colleagues about Bright going above his head, referring in emails to Bright’s “weekend at Peter’s” and calling Navarro “Rick’s friend” in the White House.
On February 25, more than a month after Bowen’s first email, Azar testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Strategic National Stockpile had only 30 million masks. That number is less than one one-hundredth of the 3.5 billion that a specialized group within HHS that focuses on the risk from viral outbreaks has estimated are necessary.
On March 4, as increasing numbers of health care workers were becoming sick and dying from the coronavirus, HHS finally put in a request for 500 million N95 face masks. Meanwhile, Kushner was assembling a team of handpicked corporate volunteers to procure protective equipment. The group, which included recent college graduates who had no experience with disaster response or supply procurement, had little success, according to the Washington Post, which first reported on the team.
That same month, as Bright predicted, BARDA was forced to stop its work addressing other potential public health emergencies in order to have enough money to fund its coronavirus efforts. As The Intercept reported at the time, BARDA suspended projects aimed at preventing anthrax, Sudan Ebola virus, Marburg virus, smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers, and antimicrobial resistant threats so that it could redirect its funds to buy supplies to fight the current emergency.
Later that month, BARDA received its first direct funding: $3.5 billion specifically for addressing Covid-19. In the past, its budget had fallen within that of the assistant secretary for disaster preparedness. This time, Bright would be able to use the new money without having to go through Kadlec.
But the freedom was shortlived. On April 17, Kadlec informed Bright that he was being transferred to a position within the National Institutes of Health. Asked on his whistleblower complaint form why he thinks he was retaliated against, Bright wrote that “I pushed for a more aggressive agency response to COVID-19. My supervisor became furious when Congress appropriated billions of dollars directly to my office.”
The Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.