Whistleblower’s testimony on US coronavirus response: Here are the key points
US whistleblower and ousted vaccine chief Rick Bright has testified that his warnings about supply shortages of masks and other personal protective equipment were ignored by authorities multiple times. He has also cast doubt on the 12- to 18-month timeline for a vaccine.
A US whistleblower and ousted vaccine chief has told a congressional hearing that the country could face "the darkest winter" of recent times if it does not improve its response to the deadly coronavirus crisis.
Rick Bright was head of the agency in charge of pandemic response. He says he was removed from his government post for raising concerns about coronavirus preparedness. Slamming the Donald Trump administration’s virus response, Bright urged lawmakers to listen to the voices of scientists to prevent "unprecedented illness and fatalities".
Whistleblower Bright testified about readiness for the outbreak for just under four hours on Thursday before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's health subcommittee. Before his testimony, Trump railed against him on Twitter and called him a "disgruntled" employee.
I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, never met him or even heard of him, but to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 14, 202
Bright was removed last month as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services responsible for developing drugs to fight the coronavirus.
"What we do must be done carefully with guidance from the best scientific minds. Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to improve our response now, based on science, I fear the pandemic will get worse and be prolonged," Bright said during his testimony.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 1.4 million people in the United States, gutted the economy and killed more than 85,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. Here are a few key points from Bright’s testimony:
WARNINGS ABOUT SUPPLY SHORTAGES IGNORED MULTIPLE TIMES
Bright testified to the subcommittee on health that he would "never forget" an e-mail he got in January from a US supplier of medical-grade face masks warning of a dire shortage. "He said 'we are in deep shit. The world is. We need to act,'" Bright said. "And I pushed that forward to the highest level that I could of HHS and got no response."
Bright testified that the US still lacked a comprehensive plan for ensuring a supply of basic supplies like swabs needed to administer coronavirus tests.
In a whistleblower complaint filed with a government watchdog last week, Bright said that he warned about the virus in January and was met with hostility from HHS leaders.
LACK OF PLANS FROM FEDERAL AGENCIES AND THE ADMINISTRATION
Bright said there is still no "master, coordinated plan" and stated that a "comprehensive strategy" was needed to beat the pandemic that included widespread testing, tracing and ongoing efforts to "develop a cure," as well as what to do with a vaccine once one is developed.
A constant refrain from Bright throughout his hearing was highlighting what he considered a lack of coordinated strategy from the White House, CNN reported.
Later on Thursday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he had watched some of Bright’s hearing. "To me he's nothing more than a really disgruntled, unhappy person," Trump said, adding that he did not know Bright. "Everything he's complaining about was achieved," HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters.
Earlier this week, leading US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci warned a Senate committee that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to additional outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus. Trump on Wednesday described Fauci's warning as not acceptable.
'ATTEMPTS TO BYPASS' A VETTING PROCESS FOR HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE
Bright, who was reassigned to a new government job last month, said he was ousted from BARDA because he resisted efforts to push the drugs hydroxychloroquine and the related chloroquine as cures for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
Bright said in the statement last month that the US government has promoted the medicines as a "panacea" even though they "clearly lack scientific merit."
HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley has disputed Bright's account, saying in a statement on Tuesday that he was transferred to a job where he was entrusted to spend around $1 billion to develop diagnostic testing.
"We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavour," Oakley said.
DOUBT ON THE 12 TP 18 MONTH TIMELINE FOR A VACCINE
The whistleblower called the White House's vaccine timeline an "aggressive schedule" and warned that if the administration rushed too quickly to get out a vaccine, the country may not have a full assessment of its safety. "There's no one company that can produce enough for our country or for the world," Bright told lawmakers.
"We need to have a strategy and plan in place now to make sure that we can not only fill that vaccine, make it, distribute it, administer it in a fair and equitable plan. We don't have that yet and it is a significant concern," he said.
Bright testified that he has not started his new government job because he has hypertension and took a medical leave.
The House subcommittee was also hearing on Thursday from Mike Bowen, co-owner of Prestige Ameritech, the largest US surgical mask producer.
It was Bowen who sent Bright an email in January warning that the United States would run out of medical-grade face masks if it did not ramp up production, according to documents included in Bright's whistleblower complaint.