WASHINGTON — Testifying before the House of Representatives Thursday morning, Rick Bright, a federal scientist who alleges that he has been sidelined by the Trump administration, warned that “our window of opportunity is closing” to stop the coronavirus, and without quick action it will return in autumn with redoubled force.
In consistently damning testimony, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority testified that he first grasped in January that the coronavirus was coming, and that the Strategic National Stockpile lacked the protective equipment, such as respirator masks and nasal swabs, that the nation would need to combat it.
Bright said that in January he received warnings from Mark Bowen, whose company makes N95 respirators, about how low the nation’s supply of those masks was. Bowen had a simple message for Bright: “We’re in deep s***.”
Bright tried to convince his superiors, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a high-ranking HHS deputy, Robert Kadlec, to act urgently to prepare the federal government for the imminent onslaught.
The response from both, he said, was “indifference.”
Speaking calmly before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a hearing titled “Protecting Scientific Integrity in the COVID-19 Response,” Bright strongly suggested that little had changed for the better in the last five months. He worried that the nation still lacked a “master coordinated plan” from the federal government to address supply shortfalls.
“We need this comprehensive national strategy,” he said, speaking from a hearing room where many of those present wore protective face masks and where tables held large bottles of hand sanitizer.
The lack of a national strategy, Bright told the committee, could lead to “the darkest winter in modern history,” with thousands more dead from complications related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, when it returns with the onset of colder weather.
That warning was in line with what Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last month about the dangerous possibility of the coronavirus and influenza both reaching epidemic levels during the cold months. The White House implied it disagreed with Redfield’s comments and tried to say they had been misrepresented by the media.
There was little ambiguity to Bright’s words. “The undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID-19 this fall,” he said in his opening statement, “greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system.”
Until last month, Bright was the head of BARDA, which conducts high-level research into bioweapons and disease outbreaks. In a whistleblower complaint filed on May 5, he alleged he was relegated to a lesser post within the federal Department of Health and Human Services for sounding alarms about hydroxychloroquine, an experimental treatment for the coronavirus promoted by President Trump. Bright said his demotion was engineered by Kadlec, the high-ranking HHS deputy.
Although he was careful in Thursday’s testimony to avoid political attacks, Bright asserted that Trump’s “obsession” with hydroxychloroquine was “extremely distracting.” Studies have so far shown little benefit and potential harm from the drug, although research is continuing. Trump no longer touts the treatment.
Bright’s dire opening statement was made public on Wednesday, ahead of his appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was widely covered by the news media. Trump tried to steer the coverage in the opposite direction, describing Bright on Twitter as a “disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to.” The president has used similar language to describe other whistleblowers.
As the hearing opened, HHS issued a press release accusing Bright of filing a whistleblower complaint that was “filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation.”
The statement also attempted to treat his removal from the BARDA directorship as a promotion of sorts and accused him of malingering.
“Mr. Bright has not yet shown up for work,” the statement said, “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.”
Communications at HHS are now run by Michael Caputo, a Republican operative from Buffalo, N.Y., who was part of Trump’s presidential campaign four years ago but has no experience in health care.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who convened the hearing, was criticized by some Republicans for prioritizing Bright’s testimony — which was widely and correctly expected to be damaging to the Trump administration — ahead of other coronavirus-related concerns. Her Silicon Valley district, according to Politico, benefited from grants and contracts from BARDA under Bright’s leadership.
But with most Americans disapproving of how Trump and his administration have handled the pandemic, which has killed more than 80,000 people in the United States, most Republicans tried to minimize Bright’s allegations without dismissing them. The tone was less harshly partisan than it was during last year’s impeachment inquiry, the last major crisis Washington faced before the coronavirus arrived in the United States in January.
“Dr. Bright has raised serious allegations, and they deserve investigation,” said the committee’s ranking Republican member, Rep. Michael C. Burgess. A medical doctor, Burgess at the same time said it was more important to hear coronavirus-related hearings on other issues, such as the disparate impact of the pandemic on minorities.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., sharply questioned Bright about his claim that he had taken leave for hypertension, implying that what Bright called the “stress” of demotion was not sufficient grounds to stay away from his new HHS position.
As the hearing continued into the afternoon, the White House tried to downplay Bright’s remarks, clearly worried that his allegations would carry the evening news, the primetime political shows and perhaps news cycles to come.
Azar, who was at the White House with Trump on Thursday as they prepared to travel to Pennsylvania, dismissed Bright’s charges. “Everything he is complaining about was achieved,” he said, an apparent reference to efforts to meet shortages in personal protective equipment, ventilators and diagnostic test kits. Trump reiterated the contents of his Twitter attack, describing Bright as a “really unhappy, disgruntled person.”
“I believe we could have done better,” Bright said, adding that there was still time to prepare for the fall but that the time was not being used with the urgency the pandemic deserved. “We have limited time,” he said. “We have the greatest scientific minds in our country to do it. We need to listen to them.”
With additional reporting by Dylan Stableford.
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