Rick Bright, the ousted director of a crucial federal office charged with developing countermeasures to infectious diseases, testified before Congress on Thursday that the US will face an even worse crisis without additional preparations to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
'Our window of opportunity is closing,' Bright said. 'Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history.'
Bright criticized the Trump administration for failing to implement a 'standard, centralized, coordinated plan' to combat the virus and questioned its timeline for a vaccine. His testimony came a week after filing a whistleblower complaint alleging he was fired from his job leading the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for opposing the use of a drug frequently touted by President Donald Trump as a potential coronavirus treatment.
About an hour before Bright's hearing, Trump tweeted that he had 'never met' or 'even heard of' Bright, but considers the NIH senior adviser 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!'
Before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's health subcommittee, Bright urged the Trump administration to consider a number of actions, including increasing production of essential equipment and establishing both a national test strategy and a national standard of procurement of supplies. He calls on top officials to 'lead' through example and wear face coverings and social distance.
Bright claimed that the administration missed 'early warning signals' to prevent the spread of the virus. He said that he would 'never forget' an email from Mike Bowen, the hearing's other witness and the vice president of the medical supply company Prestige Ameritech, indicating that the US supply of N95, the respirator masks used by health care professionals, was at a perilous level.
'He said, 'We're in deep shit,'' testified Bright. ''The world is.''
Bright said he 'pushed' that warning 'to the highest levels' he could at Health and Human Services but received 'no response.'
'From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for health care workers because we were not taking action,' said Bright. 'We were already behind the ball.'
In his written statement, Bright blamed the leadership of HHS for being 'dismissive' of his 'dire predictions.' Bright wrote that he knew the US had a 'critical shortage of necessary supplies' and personal protective equipment during the first three months of the year and prodded HHS to boost production of masks, respirators, syringes and swabs to no avail. He alleged that he faced 'hostility and marginalization' from HHS officials after he briefed White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and members of Congress 'who better understood the urgency to act.'
And he charged that he was removed from his post at BARDA and transferred to 'a more limited and less impactful position' at NIH after he 'resisted efforts to promote' the 'unproven' drug chloroquine.
In response to Bright's attorney Debra Katz telling CNN's 'The Lead with Jake Tapper' that 'when he was removed from his position, there was no position that they were actually sending him to,' a Health and Human Services source said the job offered to Bright is a specific and legitimate role to help fight the pandemic. Bright, the HHS source tells CNN, would be second in command of the Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines partnership with a billion dollars from the HHS budget to spend.
Bright is seeking to be reinstated to his position as the head of BARDA. The Office of Special Counsel, which is reviewing Bright's complaint, has determined that was a 'substantial likelihood of wrongdoing' in removing him from his post, according to Bright's attorneys.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat and the panel's chairwoman, said Bright 'was the right person, with the right judgment, at the right time.'
'We can't have a system where the government fires those who get it right and reward those who get it completely wrong,' added Eshoo.
In his testimony, Bright also cast doubt on the Trump administration's goal of manufacturing a vaccine in 12 to 18 months as overly optimistic, calling it 'an aggressive schedule' and noting that it usually takes up to 10 years to make a vaccine.
'My concern is if we rush too quickly, and consider cutting out critical steps, we may not have a full assessment of the safety of that vaccine,' Bright said. 'So, it's still going to take some time.'
Some Republicans on the subcommittee said that the hearing shouldn't have been held at all.
Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas, the top Republican on the panel, said 'every whistleblower needs to be heard,' but added the hearing was 'premature' and a 'disservice' to the Special Counsel's investigation since Bright's complaint was filed only a week ago.
And Republican Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina claimed that the hearing was not about the whistleblower complaint but 'undermining the Administration during a national and global crisis.'
Thursday's subcommittee meeting comes two days after a blockbuster hearing in the Senate that featured Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci said that access to a vaccine in time for the fall school year would be 'a bit of a bridge too far' and warning against some schools opening too soon, which Trump later called 'not an acceptable answer.'
Fauci testified from his modified quarantine at home since he had made contact with a White House staffer who tested positive. But Bright appeared masked and in-person for his hearing on Capitol Hill, as did the lawmakers who questioned him. Many members of the House have steered clear of Capitol Hill since the onset of the outbreak, although they are expected to return on Friday to vote on a multi-trillion dollar Democratic bill responding to the crisis.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.