A whistleblower recently ousted from a key research office said repeatedly Thursday that the Trump administration still has no government-wide plan to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is no master, coordinated plan on how to respond to this outbreak,” Dr. Rick Bright told the House Health Subcommittee Thursday, asked about shortages of simple supplies like swabs.
“We don’t have a strategy or plan in place that identifies each of those critical components and we don’t have as designated agency that is sourcing those critical components and coming up with a strategy to make sure that we have those supplies when we need them,” Bright added.
Until recently, Bright led BARDA, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a key office in supporting the development of vaccines and other countermeasures to biological threats.
Bright released a whistleblower complaint after being demoted to another job; he alleges the move was retaliation for exposing political influence and incompetence in the administration’s COVID-19 response. Bright’s complaint alleges that the Trump administration let critical early weeks slip by without making crucial preparations, like stocking up on masks and certain drugs. The complaint singled out Health Secretary Alex Azar and Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec, Bright’s superior until recently.
Azar responded on Thursday to Bright’s allegations, yelling to reporters as Marine One whirred nearby at the White House.
“Everything he’s complaining about was achieved,” Azar said. “Everything he talked about was done.”
“This is like somebody who was in a choir and is now trying to say he was a soloist back then,” Azar added. “What he was saying is what every single member of this administration and the president was saying: We need more personal protective equipment, we need more ventilators, we need therapeutics, we need vaccines. Every single thing, this President was on, this President achieved.”
Asked specifically during his testimony Thursday what needed to be done going forward, Bright said there was still no “single point of leadership” or “master plan” for the government response, and two points that he said were critical.
“We need to unleash the voices of the scientists in our public health system in the United States so they can be heard, and their guidances need to be listened to,” Bright testified. “We need to be able to convey that information to the American public so they have the truth about the real risk and dire consequences of this virus, and they have the truth about the consequences of their actions if they don’t follow those guidances.”
In its first response to the individual allegations included in Bright’s complaint, HHS downplayed Bright’s knowledge of the department’s early COVID-19 response measures.
“As head of BARDA, Rick Bright’s role was limited to providing support for the development of drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics,” a statement from the department Thursday morning read. “He didn’t have visibility into the enormous amount of work being done by Secretary Azar and Dr. Kadlec, much less by other components of HHS and the Administration as a whole.”
Nonetheless, Bright testified that HHS’ early “indifference” to key supply chain issues — notably the nation’s supply of N95 masks, crucial to protect health workers from infection — led to otherwise avoidable sickness and death.
“Lives were in danger, and I believe lives were lost, and not only that, we were forced to procure these supplies from other countries without the right quality standards,” he said. “So even our doctors and nurses in the hospitals today are wearing N95-marked masks from other countries that are not providing the sufficient protection that a U.S. standard N95 mask would provide them. Some of those masks are only 30% effective. Therefore, nurses are rushing into hospitals thinking they’re protected and they’re not.”
Bright warned in his prepared remarks Thursday that the United States faced the “darkest winter in modern history” without proper planning.
Even aside from the mask shortages, he explained later, drug and vaccine supply chains need to be “ramped up.” And there’s still no comprehensive national testing strategy to “find this virus and track it and kill it” where it appears, Bright testified.
“Everyone across the government and everyone in America needs to know what that plan is and what role they play,” Bright said.