The first whistleblower to come forward to Congress with an account of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus told a House committee on Thursday that early on in the outbreak, his push to secure more masks was met with “indifference” by top government health officials, leading to a delay that he argued cost lives.
In February, the whistleblower—Dr. Rick Bright, the former head of the government Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which conducts vaccine readiness and pandemic preparedness—testified that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services “informed me that they did not believe there was a critical urgency to procure masks.”
HHS officials, according to Bright, said that if a mask shortage develops, they would inform the public that they should not wear masks in order to save them for health care workers. “My response was, I cannot believe you can sit and say that with a straight face,” he told Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL). “It was absurd.”
It was only three months later that the Trump administration invoked special authority to compel the production of more N95 masks, a respirator that filters at least 95 percent of airborne particles. In the interim, said Bright, the U.S. was procuring low-quality masks from abroad, leaving front-line health care workers vulnerable to the virus. “Lives were endangered,” he said, “and I believe lives were lost.”
He added that the masks were still in circulation, “[S]o even our doctors and nurses in the hospitals today are wearing N95 marked masks from other countries that are not providing the protection that a United States N95 mask would provide. They are not as protected. They're assuming they're protected, but they're not.”
Thursday’s hearing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee is the first significant COVID-19 related hearing to happen in the House in over two months. President Trump has blocked task force members like Dr. Anthony Fauci from appearing before House members because the chamber is run by Democrats, or “Trump haters.”
Bringing in a whistleblower like Bright set them up for a blockbuster start: like Tuesday’s Senate Health Committee hearing with Fauci and other COVID-19 task force officials, the Bright hearing was carried live across cable networks and received intense coverage.
Bright, however, steered clear from pointed criticism of Trump or other specific administration officials, instead issuing broader indictments of the system. However, on an issue central to his account—the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19—Bright found himself calmly swatting down many of the claims made by Trump and allies about the drug’s efficacy, which were advanced on Thursday by Republican lawmakers.
Several GOP members of the panel, touting anecdotal evidence of the drug’s benefits, pressed Bright about why he was cautious about the use of hydroxychloroquine, a dissent that Bright says ultimately cost him his job. His answers were similar each time: authorizing the use of a drug without extensive clinical trials—which hydroxychloroquine has not been subjected to in the COVID-19 context—was a bad idea.
“We want to make sure the drugs we consider are safe and effective,” Bright said, responding to Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-VA). “The highest priority is safety.”
These answers did not seem to satisfy the Republicans. “Can’t we be so careful that we accidentally kill people?” asked Griffith in response.
“We need to show that we can put up a clinical study in less than a week,” Bright said. “It’s important to use available clinical data, and if we know there are potential risks, we need to make sure we’re cognizant of those risks and make sure the drugs are used in a very safe and controlled manner.”
On the Democratic side of the dais, meanwhile, the hearing was a venue for mounting frustration with the COVID response to explode—not at Bright, but at the administration in general. In emotional remarks, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), who represents one of the hardest-hit states, said her cousin died of COVID-19—and that she’s lost someone she knows every day this week.
“I don’t want to see anybody else die,” Dingell said.
In his opening remarks, Bright recounted his story of getting marginalized in the administration’s COVID-19 response—much of which was contained in his initial whistleblower complaint—casting himself as a lonely figure punished for giving hard truths about a growing threat to an unconcerned federal leadership.
In addition to the mask issue, Bright told lawmakers that in January, for example, he urged HHS officials to secure samples of the virus from China for the U.S. to study. Department leaders, he said, were “dismissive about my dire predictions about what I assumed would be a broader outbreak” and ultimately he was later “cut out of high level meetings to combat COVID-19.”
After more than three years as BARDA director, Bright said that on April 21 he was removed and transferred to a “less-impactful” position at the National Institutes of Health because he resisted efforts to promote chloroquine “without transparent information on the potential health risks.”
The federal government’s watchdog tasked with protecting whistleblowers, the Office of Special Counsel, has probed Bright’s story and has found some merit to his claim that he was retaliated against, as well as his claims that administration officials endangered public health with their course of action. OSC said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Bright had faced retaliation for his speaking out, and said in a letter on Thursday that there was a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing on part of the administration. It has asked HHS to investigate further to make a final determination.
Another witness, Mike Bowen—the chief executive of a company that manufactures personal protective equipment—testified that emails Bright sent about the administration response were accurate.”They are merely the latest of 13 years of emails I sent to BARDA in my effort to get HHS to understand that the US mask supply was destined for failure,” said Bowen.
In addition to offering potentially damning details about the administration’s early response to the virus—and its treatment of dissenting voices—Bright said he wanted to look ahead, too. To that end, he offered dire warnings about what could happen if the administration’s effort doesn’t improve. “It is undeniable that there will be a resurgence of COVID-19 this fall,” Bright testified, “greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system.”
“Our window of opportunity is closing,” he said, adding that 2020 will be the “darkest winter in modern history” if proper preparations aren’t made.
Without access to current administration officials, House Democrats are on a more confrontational course with the White House. In order to assess Trump’s failings on COVID-19, they are likely to continue relying on whistleblowers like Bright.
That, of course, gives Trump’s supporters a far easier time punching back. Trump himself has cast the longtime public health expert as a “disgruntled” employee, a line of attack he’s eagerly used before on former officials in his administration.
Though OSC indicated it found evidence of retaliation against Bright, news reporting has suggested some holes and inconsistencies in Bright’s account. In a Wednesday story, Politico spoke with current and former associates of his who claimed that Bright did, in fact, entertain the idea of using chloroquine in COVID-19 response, and selectively leaked emails about the administration’s pursuit of the drug to reporters.