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What vaccine expert Rick Bright said about the government’s pandemic response

The global death toll in the coronavirus pandemic has reached 300,000, with 85,000 fatalities in the U.S. alone. The new numbers were posted as federal vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright, in congressional testimony, levied grave criticism of the White House's crisis response. Meanwhile, nearly 3 million additional Americans filed for unemployment amid a crippled economy. Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The official global death toll in the COVID-19 pandemic has reached 300,000. That includes 85,000 in the United States.

    The new numbers were posted as a federal vaccine expert warned, the nation could face — quote — "the darkest winter in modern history."

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor begins with this report.

  • Woman:

    The Subcommittee on Health will now come to order.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today on Capitol Hill, a top scientist and whistle-blower:

  • Rick Bright:

    Some scientists raised early warning signals that were overlooked. And pages from our pandemic playbook were ignored.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Dr. Rick Bright is a government expert on viruses who was working to combat COVID-19. He alleges that federal officials withheld information in the early months of the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Rick Bright:

    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.

    All of those forewarnings, all of those educational opportunities for the American public could have an impact on further slowing this outbreak and saving more lives.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Bright says he raised concerns about an unproven coronavirus treatment, hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump.

    He also claims, in retaliation, he was pushed out of his job as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

    In April, Bright filed a whistle-blower complaint. He says his — quote — "efforts to prioritize science and safety over political expediency" rankled those in the administration, who wished to continue to push this false narrative.

    Last week, the federal Office of Special Counsel determined Bright's removal was retaliatory. It said he should be reinstated as BARDA's director during the investigation.

    But the bulk of Bright's warnings today focused on what he frames as the White House's sluggish response to the pandemic. He described warnings from the CEO of a major surgical mask manufacturer, Mike Bowen.

  • Rick Bright:

    Congressman, I will never forget the e-mails I received from Mike Bowen indicating that our mask supply, our N95 respirator supply was — was completely decimated.

    And he said: We're in deep (EXPLETIVE DELETED). The world is. And we need to act.

    And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS, and got no response.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Committee Democrats also accused the White House of putting politics before science.

  • Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.:

    Dr. Bright has filed one of the most specific and troubling whistle-blower complaints I have ever seen. He was the right person, with the right judgment, at the right time.

    He was not only ignored. He was fired for being right. We can't have a system where the government fires those who get it right and reward those who get it completely wrong.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But Republicans questioned whether Bright himself acted properly. They challenged his motives for testifying.

  • Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C.:

    But this hearing is not about a whistle-blower complaint. It's about undermining the administration during a national and global crisis.

    You chose not to elevate your concerns to the Office of the Inspector General, but instead kept selective screen shots that didn't include full context.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Meanwhile, at the White House, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar echoed critiques of Bright's record and defended President Trump's.

  • Secretary Alex Azar:

    Everything he's complaining about was achieved. Dr. Bright was part of a team and was simply saying what everybody else at the White House and at HHS was saying, not one bit of difference.

    And on hydroxychloroquine, Dr. Bright literally signed the application for an FDA authorization of it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump dismissed Bright as bitter.

  • President Donald Trump:

    He looks like an angry, disgruntled employee, who, frankly, according to some people, didn't do a very good job.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The back-and-forth over Bright came amid the ongoing debate about when and how to reopen the economy.

    New Labor Department figures showed almost three million more Americans filed unemployment claims last week. That brings total claims since the pandemic began to more than 36 million.

    The anxiety is palpable across the country. Today, protesters in Lansing, Michigan, again demanded a reopening. In neighboring Wisconsin on Wednesday, Democratic Governor Tony Evers' stay-at-home order extension was overruled by a conservative-majority court.

    Last night, bars quickly filled with patrons not wearing facial coverings, against health official's guidance.

    One owner, Chad Arndt, said, at his Port Washington bar, employees were desperate to return to work.

  • Chad Arndt:

    After my employees haven't been paid in two months, I had to look out for them and their families, and I had to look out for my business.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Some cities in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee and Madison, quickly imposed their own restrictions after the court ruling.

    President Trump has encouraged an end to restrictions. And, today, he traveled again, this time to Allentown, Pennsylvania. There, during a tour of a distribution center that makes personal protective equipment, he ignored his own CDC guidance and did not wear a protective mask.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Also today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted six pages of guidance for reopening schools, businesses, and other groups.

    The documents had initially been shelved by the White House. Another 57 pages of more extensive guidelines have yet to be released.

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