Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted director of a federal agency researching vaccine development, testified before Congress Thursday and warned that without adequate organization and trust science, covid-19 could turn 2020 into “the darkest winter in modern history.” But Bright’s chilling warning was made even more urgent when he revealed that the United States has lacked the necessary amount of N95 masks since 2007.
Bright spoke for nearly four hours before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, alleging that Health and Human Services was dismissive of his concerns that the United States was not adequately prepared for the covid-19 pandemic. From the beginning of 2020, Bright warned HHS that there must be an increase in the production of masks, syringes, swabs, respirators, and the like, a warning Bright says was echoed by others in the medical supply industry. He received scant responses from higher-ups. But the lack of preparedness goes back even further.
Democratic congresswoman Kathy Castor asked whether Bright knew the United States would face a shortage of respirators as of January. His response was grim.
“We understood America would face a shortage of N95 respirators for a pandemic response in 2007,” Bright said. “And we have exercised and known and evaluated that number almost every year since 2007... It was exercised even as early as August 2019 in Crimson Contagion [a pandemic simulation administered by HHS] that we would need 3.5 billion N95 respirators in our stockpile to protect our healthcare workers from a pandemic response.”
Bright said that he was getting word from industry colleagues that the supply chain was “diminishing rapidly,” that other countries were blocking the export of masks to the United States, and that China was attempting to buy equipment from the United States that would allow them to make protective equipment of their own. (The United States did, in fact, send China millions of face masks and other gear in January and February, when the Trump administration was still characterizing covid-19 as a non-issue).
Bright continued: “I pushed those [warnings] forward to our leadership... Dr. Kadlec [the assistant secretary for preparedness and response] and his senior leadership team, I pushed those warnings to our critical infrastructure protection team, I pushed those warnings to our strategic national stockpile team...who has the responsibility of procuring those medical supplies for our stockpile.”
“In each of those, I was met with indifference,” Bright said. He received a slew of excuses instead, and some teams flat-out admitted that they didn’t have a plan or didn’t know who was responsible for procuring protective materials.
After months of delayed action from HHS, Bright alleges that he was removed from his position as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on April 21 for refusing to promote chloroquine, a drug President Trump has touted as a potential covid-19 treatment. Bright warned that anecdotal evidence of chloroquine’s success is not grounds for flooding the market with the drug; it has not undergone sufficient clinical trial and is not an FDA-approved covid-19 treatment. Misinformation about the drug’s effectiveness led to the March deaths of an Arizona couple, who ingested chloroquine phosphate after Trump promoted it.
“There were some attempts to bypass that rigorous vetting process that caused me great concern,” Bright said.
Bright filed a whistleblower complaint soon after he was removed as head of BARDA. HHS has characterized Bright’s removal as a “personnel matter that is currently under review.”
Despite attempts by Republicans on the committee to cheapen Bright’s testimony—that Bright’s actions were partisan in nature, and that Bright, an expert in the field of pandemic medicine, simply underestimates the healing power of chloroquine—Bright’s message was steady: There was ample warning that the United States does not have the infrastructure needed to control the spread of a fatal virus, those in charge did not listen, and the window of opportunity to change course is closing fast.
Those hoping that a vaccine will overcome bureaucratic incompetence will have to wait, likely longer than they would like.
“A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12-to-18-month time frame if everything goes perfectly,” Bright said. “We’ve never seen everything go perfectly.”