Federal whistleblower Rick Bright testified before a House subcommittee on Thursday about the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. Speaking for almost four hours, Bright, who was ousted as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in April, provided a stinging, detailed account of President Donald Trump and Department of Health and Human Services officials’ failures to respond to the looming pandemic in January and February
Just hours after the president smeared him on Twitter as a disgruntled employee who “should no longer be working for our government,” Bright told the members of the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about numerous occasions in which higher-ups had failed to heed his urgent calls for personal protective equipment, medical supplies, and samples of the virus necessary for beginning work on vaccines and therapeutics.
Those delays cost lives, said Bright, who offered the grim warning that, without better planning, “2020 will be darkest winter in modern history.”
In a heated hearing, Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint earlier this month, also provided new details about a planned Trump administration program that would have made an unproven coronavirus treatment available without medical supervision. On March 23, he said, he received a directive from the office of the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to create an expanded access program that would have provided broad access to the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.
The program would have used an app to give people access to the potentially dangerous drugs — even those without confirmed coronavirus infections, Bright testified. He said his insistence that the regimen to be scientifically evaluated before it was made widely available angered his superiors and led him to be “involuntarily transferred” to a job at the National Institutes of Health.
Bright said, “That, I believe, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and escalated my removal.”
The testimony underscored Bright’s claim that his direct boss, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec and others at Health and Human Services resisted his attempts to address the imminent shortage of N95 masks in January and February, as coronavirus infections were spreading throughout the U.S.
“We should have been doing everything possible, placing orders early, ramping up supply. It should have been a high priority.”
During that period, Bright received a series of increasingly desperate emails from Mike Bowen, co-owner of Prestige Ameritech, the country’s biggest manufacturer of the masks that are used to protect health care workers from infectious diseases.
“I’ll never forget the emails I received from Mike Bowen indicating that our N95 supply was completely decimated,” Bright testified. “He said, ‘We’re in deep shit. The world is. And we need to act.’ And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could at HHS and got no response. From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis.”
“We should have been doing everything possible, placing orders early, ramping up supply. It should have been a high priority,” Bright went on. Instead, “I was met with indifference, people saying they were either too busy, or they didn’t have a plan, or they didn’t know who was responsible.” Bright added, “There were a number of excuses but never any action.”
Bright testified that, rather than responding, his superiors told him that his urgent pleas “were causing a commotion and I was removed from those meetings.”
Azar, as well as Kadlec and Peter Navarro, a White House official who Bright said helped him call attention to the coronavirus crisis, were invited to testify at the hearing but declined.
While Bright said the inadequate supply of surgical masks has already cost lives, he warned that many more health care workers still face an increased risk of Covid-19 infection because of ongoing shortages and the resulting reliance on lower quality masks. “Our doctors and nurses in the hospital today are wearing N95 masks from other countries that are not providing the sufficient protection,” Bright said.
After Bright described the flawed supply chain that led to the N95 fiasco, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., expressed fear that similar problems might befall other critical products.
“I’m afraid the same thing is going to happen with vaccines,” said Pallone. “Should I be concerned?”
“Absolutely, sir,” Bright responded.
Bright, who has a Ph.D. in virology and has served in disaster preparedness for decades, also alerted the lawmakers to other shortages of supplies critical for dealing with the ongoing emergency, including swabs, testing reagents, and syringes. Although Bright began raising the alarm about the lack of syringes back in January, he told lawmakers that they weren’t ordered until May 1 and that another order “was placed today.”
In his whistleblower report, Bright made the case that Kadlec had been pressuring him to award contracts to politically connected companies, including one with ties to Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. Among the drugs that Bright said Kadlec and a pharmaceutical industry consultant were pushing BARDA to purchase was one that had not undergone safety testing in humans. Bright argued that his removal from the agency was retaliation for his resistance both to the widespread cronyism and the pressures around chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.
Democrats on the committee lavishly praised Bright for speaking out about the government ineptitude and corruption, thanking him for his courage and calling him the “finest ambassador in our country for scientists,” as subcommittee chair Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., put it.
For his part, Bright embraced the role. He said, “Americans need to be told the truth.”
Yet several Republicans dismissed Bright as politically motivated and questioned the timing of the hearing, which was held before the Office of Special Counsel completed its investigation of Bright’s complaint. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., accused him of “undermining the administration during a national and global crisis.”
In his own testimony, Prestige Ameritech’s Bowen raised questions about why Bright and others at BARDA didn’t act years earlier to address the preventable crisis, which Bowen said his company had identified in 2006.
While Bowen confirmed that he sent the emails to Bright about the diversion of foreign-made masks from the U.S. and the immediate need to ramp up domestic production during January and February, he described the missives as “merely the latest of 13 years of emails I sent to BARDA in my effort to get HHS to understand that the U.S. mask supply was destined for failure.”
Bowen testified that he had been alerting staff at BARDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to problems with the nation’s mask supply since at least 2007. Bright, who took medical leave because of hypertension following his whistleblower complaint, has worked at BARDA since 2010 and served as its director since 2016.
According to Bowen, the production of surgical masks largely shifted abroad in 2004, leaving the domestic mask supply “subject to diversion by foreign governments.” Prestige Ameritech alerted BARDA to the problem in 2007 and, in response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, bought an abandoned factory and tripled its workforce so it could increase its production of N95 masks. But, after the crisis subsided, hospitals returned to buying cheaper, foreign-made masks, and the company was forced to reduce its production and lay off 150 workers, Bowen said.
In January, Bowen offered to once again use that factory to produce masks. “Reactivating these machines would be very difficult and very expensive but could be achieved in a dire situation and with government help,” he wrote to Bright on January 22, just after the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the U.S. was announced.
“They said that they would express their concerns about the mask supply to anyone that I could get to call them – anyone except reporters.”
In 2014, his company joined with other mask manufacturers to form the Secure Mask Supply Association, which attempted to warn about the dangers of not producing enough surgical masks in the U.S. The group worked with Bright and two of his agency colleagues at the time, who, according to Bowen, offered to help get the word out about the lack of domestic N95 production capacity — with certain limitations.
“They said that they would express their concerns about the mask supply to anyone that I could get to call them — anyone except reporters,” Bowen wrote.
Bright’s future is unclear. While the Office of Special Counsel, which is investigating his complaint, recommended that he remain at BARDA, Bright said that he was in discussion with NIH about starting work there.
In a statement to The Intercept, Bright’s lawyers said, “Rather than investigating Dr. Bright’s serious allegations of wrongdoing, which the Office of Special Counsel has determined as a preliminary matter have merit, HHS leadership has decided to lodge baseless allegations against him in an effort to distract attention from the important issues that should be addressed to save American lives.”