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Key moments from HHS whistleblower Rick Bright’s testimony on coronavirus response

Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert who until last month led the federal office in charge of developing measures to help guard against infectious threats and securing vital supplies, testified on Thursday that the Trump administration is mishandling the response to the coronavirus pandemic. He warned House lawmakers that they would “either be remembered for what we did, or for what we failed to do to address” the virus that has already killed nearly 80,000 in the United States.

Bright, who claims he was ousted from his role as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority last month, told members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that “2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history” if federal officials fail to act swiftly to quell the pandemic.

Bright detailed his efforts to push members of President Donald Trump’s administration to act with more urgency earlier as the virus began to spread around the U.S. In late April, he was removed from his position with BARDA, a decision he believes was retaliation for his pushing back on the administration’s virus response strategies, including the president’s support of the unproven use of an antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, to treat the illness. Bright first publicly addressed these issues in a whistleblower complaint filed last week, and went into more detail about the events leading to his reassignment and his concerns for the future in Thursday’s testimony.

He said the country can still implement public health measures to fight COVID-19, and outlined several key steps, including developing a national testing strategy and ramping up production of essential supplies like masks and testing materials. But, he said that the slow response and lack of resources devoted to fighting the pandemic had cost lives. “From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a 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,” he said.

Bright’s warnings about the need to take urgent, yet informed measures in the next steps of the pandemic echoed those of another leading health official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci testified before a Senate committee on Tuesday that there is a “real risk” that states could trigger more virus outbreaks if they reopen too early.

Bright expressed similar concerns on Thursday: “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.”

Here are key takeaways from Bright’s House subcommittee hearing:

Lives were lost as a result of government delay, Bright says

The U.S. missed “critical steps” to prepare for the pandemic earlier, Bright told the members of Congress. Throughout his testimony, Bright detailed multiple attempts he and other colleagues made to raise concerns with multiple officials about the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, he said, his requests for resources in January were met with “surprise and puzzlement.” At one point, Bright refuted a claim that Trump had made in February about the virus being under control.

During a line of questioning from Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., Bright said he was rebuffed by Department of Health and Human Services officials after he had urged them in February to procure N95 masks to respond to the pandemic. “They informed me that they did not believe there was a critical urgency to procure masks,” Bright said.

U.S. has no ‘master plan’ for virus response

Bright expressed concerns to lawmakers about what he feels is a lack of leadership and unified action when it comes to the pandemic. “We don’t have a single point of leadership right now for this virus response, and we don’t have a master plan for this response,” Bright said. He added that scientists need to be empowered to tell the American public the truth about the seriousness of the threat and should have been free to tell Americans about that reality much earlier in the pandemic. According to Bright, that leadership vacuum had serious consequences.

“I believe that the best scientific guidance and advice was not being conveyed to the American public,” Bright said during an exchange with Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-Calif. “People were not as prepared as they could have been and should have been. We did not forewarn people. We did not train people. We did not educate them on social distancing and wearing a mask as we should have in January and February,” Bright said.

He also discussed current moves by a number of states to reopen workplaces, despite some regions continuing to see spikes in infections. A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from late April indicated that while a growing number of American households have lost jobs due to virus shutdowns, a majority of U.S. adults are uncomfortable with reopening. Recent data also show a surge in infections at worksites, including meatpacking and poultry-processing plants, and among construction workers in Texas who recently returned to their jobs.

Answering questions from Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., about the country’s current state of response, Bright said, “It doesn’t appear that there is a nationwide, coordinated plan that states are following” to reopen the country.

U.S. needs a coronavirus vaccine strategy, or risks catastrophe

Among the most pressing concerns Bright expressed in his testimony was the country’s preparedness to mass produce and distribute a coronavirus vaccine to all Americans. In his response to Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., he said it would be “catastrophic” if everyone does not have access to a vaccine. “The decisions have not been made yet [on] who to vaccinate first, how to identify those individuals, and how to stretch those limits to supplies appropriately,” Bright said.

The country likely won’t see a vaccine in 2020, Bright said, adding that a vaccine could be developed within 12 to 18 months “if everything goes perfectly.”

“We’ve never seen everything go perfectly,” Bright added.

He also cautioned lawmakers against rushing to develop a vaccine without taking proper safety measures like clinical studies, or pushing treatments “that lack scientific merit.” To him, that includes hydroxychloroquine, which randomized controlled studies have not shown to be sufficiently effective, Bright noted.

Supply shortages will worsen infection disparities for vulnerable communities

Specific data on coronavirus infection rates remains incomplete, but black and Latino communities have been particularly hard hit. In Chicago, for example, black people make up about 30 percent of the city’s population, but accounted for about 70 percent of its coronavirus deaths in early April. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month showed that African Americans make up approximately 30 percent of cases, despite representing 13 percent of the U.S. population.

In April, a group of Senate and House Democrats sent letters requesting the White House to immediately begin taking steps to track and address these disparities. “We know that the disparities in our society did not begin with the COVID-19 pandemic, but this crisis has exposed the deep inequality in the health and economic security of our communities,” one of the letters stated.

Any future supply shortages — of virus testing and potential treatments — will increase that risk for marginalized communities — especially if those therapies are not made affordable, Bright told lawmakers Thursday. Bright said he had conversations with administration officials about reaching groups that have been disproportionately affected by the virus, but was not sure there was a “solidified plan” to address these concerns. “It’s really important to think about when we have diagnostic tests and other things available, that they are available to everyone,” Bright said.