WASHINGTON – Dr. Rick Bright, a government immunologist, says he will never forget the email he received from a medical supply company earlier this year warning that the nation’s supply of N95 respirator masks was completely decimated.
“He said, ‘We are in deep s—,’ ” Bright told members of Congress on Thursday. “I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could at HHS and got no response.”
From that moment, Bright testified, he knew the nation’s health care workers would be in a crisis and lives would be lost. Furthermore, he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee the window is closing fast to prevent the “darkest winter in modern history” if the nation doesn’t improve its response.
Bright has filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was ousted from the Department of Health and Human Services in retaliation for his views, which included his resistance to broad access to an unproven drug, chloroquine, that President Donald Trump has touted, along with hydroxychloroquine, as a potential “game-changer” in the fight against the virus.
Bright was removed last month from his position as the director of HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. The office procures vaccines and other supplies for the Strategic National Stockpile, along with other actions to address pandemics and other health threats.
On Tuesday, the Office of Special Counsel said in a letter to Bright’s attorneys that based on the information he shared, there was a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing.” The office said it was calling on HHS Secretary Alex Azar to open an investigation into Bright’s allegations.
While Bright testified, Trump dismissed him as an “angry, disgruntled employee” who was bad at his job. Trump also continued to push for the use of hydroxychloroquine.
“A lot of people have sworn by it,” Trump said.
Azar likewise lashed out at Bright, saying everything he complained about was achieved. The government procured more respirators and launched unprecedented efforts to find a vaccine, he said.
“What he was saying is what every single member of this administration and the president was saying,” Azar said.
But Bright said that higher-ups didn’t believe him when he warned in early February that there was a critical shortage of N95 masks. Bright said he was told that if a shortage developed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could change its guidelines on who should wear the masks so that there would be enough for health care workers.
“My response was, ‘I cannot believe you can sit and say that with a straight face,’ ” Bright said. “Lives were endangered and I believe lives were lost.”
Because the United States waited too long, he continued, the nation had to import masks from other countries that weren’t necessarily manufactured under the same standards. As a result, Bright testified, some are only 30% effective.
When he became “quite alarmed” to learn that there was also a shortage of swabs, Bright said he and a colleague tried to raise the issue at a senior leadership meeting with Robert Kadlec, the assistant HHS secretary for emergency preparedness and response, but was rebuffed.
Instead, Bright said, he reached out to White House trade adviser Peter Navarro who quickly contacted the Defense Department for help.
Bright also said he unsuccessfully tried to increase the availability of remdesivir, a drug that has shown a modest benefit for patients with COVID-19.
“I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion and I was removed from those meetings,” he testified.
The committee invited Azar, Kadlec and Navarro to testify but they declined. All are mentioned extensively in Bright’s whistleblower complaint.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, the California Democrat who conducted the hearing, called Bright’s account “one of the most specific and troubling whistleblower complaints I’ve ever seen.”
“He was not only ignored,” she said, “he was fired for being right.”
Republicans on the panel complained that Bright didn’t try to notify Congress of his concerns. They called the hearing a politically motivated attempt to undermine the administration during a crisis rather than an effort to figure out how the country can improve its response.
Bright’s recommendations on what still needs to happen include a national testing strategy, increased production of essential equipment and supplies, a more equitable distribution of those supplies and a ramped-up public education campaign about the importance of hand washing, social distancing and mask wearing.
As Bright addressed the committee, an American flag pin on his jacket lapel, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes sat next to his water bottle at his right elbow. The face mask Bright wore into the hearing room also lay beside him on the witness table.
“First and foremost, we need to be truthful with the American people,” he said. “The truth must be based on science.”
Contributing: David Jackson, USA TODAY; The Associated Press