WASHINGTON (CN) — There weren’t two ways about it, the world was about to be in “deep shit.” This proclamation in an email to ousted vaccine chief Dr. Rick Bright from a supplier of N95 masks was a moment that still haunts him today as the death toll from Covid-19 rises above 80,000.
Bright told Congress on Thursday that his advocacy of science and safety went ignored by the White House and placed the public health in danger.
It was January when Mike Bowen of Prestige Ameritech alerted Bright that the national stockpile of N95 respirator masks was “completely decimated.”
“We’re in deep shit. The world is in deep shit. We need to act,” Bowen wrote to Bright in January.
The former director for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development authority, a Health and Human Services agency that develops drugs, vaccines and treatment protocols, pushed the warning forward to the “highest levels,” Bright testified Thursday.
“And I got no response,” he said. “From that moment, I knew we were going to have crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball, 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.”
What he received from officials inside the Health and Human Services Department was “indifference” and “excuses,” he said. He knew in January that the strategic national stockpile in a crisis demanded over 3.5 billion N95 masks.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar was suggesting only a small fraction of that was needed publicly. As the weeks wore on, most interactions Bright had with Azar or Robert Kadlec, the department’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response, became more disturbing.
“They did not believe there was a critical urgency to procure the masks,” Bright said. “They conducted a few surveys, talked to a few hospitals and said they didn’t yet see a critical shortage.”
At one point, when Bright learned from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield that a swab shortage was looming because that stockpile was depleted too, he went to Azar.
“I don’t want to deal with swabs right now,” Azar allegedly told Bright.
So he went to Peter Navarro, President Donald Trump’s economic adviser, and the men partnered with the Defense Department to get the swabs Bright sought.
When it came to masks, the response was equally blasé.
“They indicated if they noticed a shortage, they would simply change the guidelines to better inform those who shouldn’t be wearing the masks and save the masks for the health care workers. My response was, ‘I cannot believe you can sit and say that with a straight face.’ It’s absurd,” Bright testified.
Bright’s removal from BARDA, he alleges, was a response to his insistence that the federal government meet the Covid-19 pandemic head-on with science and invest taxpayer funds into treatment vetted by experts, not those motivated by political expediency or profiteering.
“Not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” Bright said in his prepared remarks to the House Subcommittee on Health.
Beyond allegations of cronyism running “unfiltered” during a period of national crisis, Bright also offered recommendations he believes will help stave off “the darkest winter in modern history.”
“First and foremost, we need to be truthful with the American people. They want the truth. They can handle the truth. Truth, no matter how unpleasant, decreases the fear generated by uncertainty,” Bright said in opening remarks to lawmakers.
Asked later by subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., what he meant by the “darkest winter,” Bright said he feared that time was running out because the nation has lacked cohesion around a coordinated attack plan.
“The virus is spreading everywhere, people are getting restless and want to leave their homes and we have to make critical decisions about how to balance the economy and the science,” he said.
His goal was to apply his 25 years of studying pandemics, outbreaks, immunology and influenza to disrupt what he saw as a fast emerging and devastating new reality: If the novel coronavirus spread through U.S. like wildfire, it could shake the “very foundations of our societies.”
That sentiment was echoed by Eshoo.
“Our country is in pain. Americans are afraid. They are sick, hungry and jobless and 80,000 souls have been lost and the government that was supposed to protect them has failed,” she said at Thursday’s hearing.
Bright warned lawmakers the “window of opportunity is closing” to effectively combat the Covid-19 pandemic, calling for a coordinated national response based on science, transparency and testing – much more testing.
“We still do not have a comprehensive testing strategy so Americans know which tests do what and what to do with that information so we can find the virus, trap it and kill it,” he said.
While the White House is advocating a full-steam ahead approach, Bright acknowledged the urge to reopen America. It must be done, but to stem the death and destruction, that means people must understand the risk of their own activities, he said.
As Bright testified, the president railed on Twitter, claiming not to know Bright as he called him a “disgruntled employee… not liked or respected by the people I spoke to and with who, with his attitude should no longer be working for our government!”
Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Md., asked Bright if he ever felt the White House put him in a “difficult situation” when he was director.
He responded carefully: “We had to come up with a different solution that the administration would respect.”
In the complaint Bright filed with the Office of the Special Counsel shortly after being transferred to the National Institute of Health, Bright said HHS leadership “leveled baseless criticisms against him for his proactive efforts to invest early in vaccine development as well as in critical supplies such as masks, respirators, and swabs, which were in short supply and would be necessary to combat Covid-19.”
When he opposed the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, drugs Trump first promoted as a “game changer,” Bright says he was forced out.
The antimalarial drugs were being promoted as a cure-all, he claims, and the administration was demanding BARDA “flood” New York and New Jersey with the antimalarial drugs even though the efficacy for Covid-19 treatment was unknown and they came from factories in Pakistan and India uninspected by the Food and Drug Administration.
Directives eventually came down from Health and Human Services general counsel, Bob Charrow, to authorize chloroquine far past what the FDA permitted, Bright claims.
The ousted vaccine chief alleges the plan would have involved the launch of a database app created by the California-based tech giant Oracle, co-founded by Larry Ellison, a billionaire who spends time advising Trump as he donates to his reelection campaign.
“If your suggestions would have been implemented would more lives have been saved or the severity of the pandemic lessened?” an impassioned Representative Debbie Dingell, D-Calif., asked Bright.
Proper protective gear for workers would have been a start.
“People died because they didn’t have appropriate protective equipment to save their lives and prevent them from getting infected,” Bright said.
Bright also told Congress suggestions that a safe vaccine might be available in 12 to 18 months was optimistic, barring any major delays or disasters.