The Trump administration was warned in late January that it had a critical shortage of surgical masks needed to combat coronavirus and that it needed to prioritize the development of a vaccine. But it failed to take action, a top administration health official alleges in a whistleblower complaint formally filed on Tuesday.
The complaint from Dr. Rick Bright, who led the government’s efforts to find a vaccine for the coronavirus before being reassigned to a position at the National Institutes of Health, details what he describes as a staggering degree of inaction from administration officials bracing for a historic pandemic. Bright, who served as a program leader within the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), says he raised alarms about supply chain shortages early on during the coronavirus’ spread. While certain officials inside the administration shared his fears—most notably, President Donald Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro—others did not.
Eventually, Bright says, he was excluded from a meeting on COVID, even though the agenda for the meeting listed him as a participant. He claims he was ultimately fired for pushing back and speaking out against the administration’s attempts to push an unproven COVID therapy drug.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Caitlin Oakley, an HHS Spokesperson, said "Dr. Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing – critical to combatting COVID-19 – where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort." Oakley added that the agency was "deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor.”
A spokesman for Bright said there was a reason he had not shown up to work: he's been suffering from "hypertension caused by this current situation" and been advised by his doctor to take sick leave.
Before his re-assignment, Bright identified Dr. Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), as chief among his antagonists. Kadlec, Bright alleges, declined to coordinate senior level meetings in mid January as the virus was spreading across China, suggesting that he was “[n]ot sure if that is a time sensitive urgency.”
HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Bright alleges, was similarly slow to act, convinced that the U.S. could keep the virus from spreading domestically. At one point, Bright says, a top government official accused him of creating a “shitstorm” by asking for more funds for BARDA in front of Azar.
One of Bright’s biggest frustrations was saved for procurement of masks, which he said he recognized early on would be a critical need in the coronavirus pandemic. Bright said that on January 21, 2020, Mike Bowen, co-owner and Executive Vice President of domestic surgical mask producer Prestige Ameritech, emailed him that the Department of Homeland Security had contacted him about procuring masks. Bright raised Bowen’s concerns internally about getting production of N95 masks up and going. But for a week nothing happened. Eventually, Bowen emailed again.
“I think we’re in deep shit,” he wrote.
Bright’s attempts to sound the alarm about mask shortages persisted from there. In a meeting with other health officials on February 7, he insisted that the federal government needed to place orders to ramp up production of N95 masks in order to protect healthcare workers and first responders. But an HHS supply chain team pushed back, saying there was “no indication of a supply chain shortage or of issues with masks,” according to the complaint.
Frustrated by the lack of movement within HHS to procure medical supplies, Bright was relieved that he received an invitation from Navarro to discuss ways the administration could address the gaps. The two met on February 8.
That weekend Navarro and Bright drafted a memo for the coronavirus task force urging it to direct HHS to take steps to halt the export of N95 masks from the U.S., secure existing doses of a potential therapeutic, Remdesivir, and to fund a “Manhattan Project” for vaccine development, according to the complaint. That project eventually became what’s been dubbed “Operation Warped Speed.”
“There is currently no vaccine to protect against coronavirus. If we start this week to fast track vaccine development with appropriate funding, we can likely have a vaccine to clinical trials within 7 months and a workable vaccine by October or November, with a production capacity of 150 million doses by the end of the year IF we act NOW,” Navarro and Bright’s memo to the task force says. “We don’t yet know what type of vaccine would be safe and effective. Therefore, it is critical the [government] invest in multiple shots on goal to ensure that at least one vaccine is realized.”
Despite the project's ambitious name, the search for a vaccine moved slowly, Bright says. He claims that Dr. Kadlec criticized his insistence that the U.S. start working on vaccines at the outset of the COVID pandemic, stating that the focus should be on therapies because vaccines would take too long to develop. It would take Secretary Azar until April 10, 2020, to focus on the need to prioritize vaccines, Bright alleges.
While Bright was pushing for vaccine research, he also says that he was trying to stop attempts by Kadlec and others to advance unproven therapy drugs. Chief among those being elevated was hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria medication that President Trump had grown to believe would be an elixir for COVID.
Bright says he raised concerns that the administration was funding “potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections” and that he brought those concerns to other government officials including those inside the White House. But when no action was taken, he concluded that he needed to share his concerns with a journalist who’d contacted him earlier about the issues of therapeutics. In his complaint, Bright cops to confirming information for the reporter and provided corroborating documentation as well as providing the reporter with emails between HHS officials.
On April 20, 2020, Kadlec and others removed Bright from his post.
“Though no one ever provided a reason to me, an HHS spokesperson announced that my transfer was part of a “bold new plan” to defeat COVID-19, he said in his complaint.