5 takeaways from coronavirus whistleblower Rick Bright’s testimony
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A Trump administration vaccine expert who says he was removed from a key role
for raising concerns about the federal government’s coronavirus response — and its promotion of unproven drugs to treat the virus — testified Thursday before Congress.
Rick Bright became a whistleblower after being removed from his post as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Here are some takeaways from Bright’s testimony.
1. ‘Lives were lost’ because of ‘inaction,' unheeded warnings
Bright said that early inaction by the government — particularly in the Department of Health and Human Services — had, in fact, cost lives.
“That inaction has put a lot of lives at risk in our front-line health-care workers” Bright said.
Bright has said that he pushed for ramping up production of medical equipment such as masks, but that it went unheeded for months after he was informed that officials didn’t think there was a “critical shortage” of masks.
“I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response,” Bright said. “From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health-care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production to save the lives of those health-care workers, and we didn’t act."
Bright added that even today, the country is dealing with the consequences of that early negligence and that health-care workers are still more at risk than they should be.
“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Bright said. “And not only that: We were forced to procure these supplies from other countries without the right quality standards. 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 percent effective. Therefore, nurses are rushing in the hospitals thinking they’re protected, and they’re not.”
2. Administration pushed vastly expanded use of unproven drugs
One of Bright’s key claims is that he was moved to another post after raising objections to the administration pushing the use of the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus.
The administration allowed for the emergency use of the drugs to treat the virus, though later studies — which have yet to be peer-reviewed and were not randomized — suggest that the use of the drugs don’t help and can, in fact, have negative consequences. The FDA has now warned about the dangers
of using the drugs.
“My concerns were escalated when I learned that leadership in the Department of Health and Human Services were pushing to make that drug available outside of this emergency use authorization, to flood New York and New Jersey with this drug,” Bright said.
Bright has cited his skepticism of the drugs for his removal from his post and said the administration wanted to make it easier for people to use them without extensive medical supervision — even people who might not even have the virus.
“I believe part of the removal process for me was initiated because of a pushback that I gave when they asked me to put in place an expanded access protocol that would make chloroquine more freely available to Americans that were not under the close supervision of a physician and may not even be confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus,” Bright said.
3. Pessimism about 12- to 18-month timeline for vaccine
President Trump has been effusively optimistic about not just treatments such as the chloroquines but about the timeline for a vaccine for the virus.
Shortly before Bright’s testimony Thursday, Trump even said, “I think we’re going to have a vaccine by the end of the year.”
That’s even more optimistic than the 12- to 18-month timeline that medical experts such as Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said is realistic for the vaccine. But Bright said that even a year to year-and-a-half timeline might also be overly optimistic.
“I still think 12 to 18 months is an aggressive schedule, and I think it’s going to take longer than that to do so,” Bright said.
4. We don’t have ‘a single point of leadership’ or ‘master plan’
As Trump increasingly criticized Fauci
, Bright said the government needs to have more regard for it scientists -- and a more consistent message from the top.
He said that right now the response has been hampered by not having a “single point of leadership.”
“We need to install and empower leadership, and 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 said. “And 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.
He added: "And we don’t have a single point of leadership right now for this response, and we don’t have a master plan for this response. So those two things are absolutely critical.”
Fauci has said in recent days that states that move forward with reopening their economies before meeting the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are risking new outbreaks – which could set back the entire response.
5. Azar, Republicans cast Bright as a malcontent skipping work
As Bright offered one of the most significant rebukes of the federal coronavirus response to date, Republicans on the committee and members of the Trump administration sought to undercut his testimony and character. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in particular, had strong words for Bright.
“Everything he is complaining about was achieved,” Azar said while standing next to Trump on the White House lawn. “Everything he talked about was done. He says he talked about the need for respirators; we procured respirators under the president’s direction.”
Azar echoed Republicans in the hearing who questioned why Bright has been absent from his new posting — a narrower one focused on testing and vaccines at the National Institutes of Health — in recent weeks.
“While we’re launching Operation Warp Speed,” Azar said, “he’s not showing up for work to be part of that.”
Bright said that he has been on leave while dealing with “very high blood pressure” — owing in part to the stress from recent events.
“I had a conversation with my physician about my hypertension and how we’ve been managing it over the last three weeks because this has been very stressful to be removed suddenly without explanation from my role and position as a life change for me,” Bright said.
Bright said he would make records related to his medical condition available.