clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ousted whistleblower warns US is heading toward “darkest winter in modern history”

Dr. Rick Bright says his removal from his position was an act of political retaliation.

Rick Bright (center), former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, before testifying about the government response to Covid-19 on Capitol Hill May 14, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Dr. Rick Bright, previously the director of a US research agency working on a coronavirus vaccine, testified Thursday morning to a House subcommittee that “without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history.”

Bright warned lawmakers in his testimony before the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the US needs to take “simple but critical steps” to control the coronavirus pandemic and head off a disastrous second wave of infections this winter.

“We need to have the right testing for everyone who needs it. We need to be able to trace contacts, isolate, quarantine, and appropriately — while striving to develop a cure,” Bright said. “There will be plenty of time to look back to assess what has happened so we can improve, but right now, we need to focus on getting things right going forward.”

He also told the committee in his opening statement that he believes a Covid-19 vaccine is a question of when, not if, but cautioned that “12 to 18 months is an aggressive schedule and I think it will take longer than that” to manufacture a vaccine.

Until last month, Bright led the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). He alleges that his removal from that post was an act of retaliation by Trump administration officials because he resisted a push by the White House to promote unproven coronavirus treatments using hydroxychloroquine.

In his opening statement, Bright backed Tuesday’s Senate testimony by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force.

“Dr. Fauci delivered a message in a voice that’s clear and trustworthy as he encouraged us to act with caution as we return to our daily lives,” Bright said. “We must increase the public education about the basics — washing hands, social distancing, appropriate face covering.”

Bright’s written testimony, submitted ahead of Thursday’s hearing, had an even stronger warning: that without clear planning and quick action, the coming winter will be the darkest in recent history. He modulated that warning slightly on Thursday but still struck a sobering note.

“If we fail to improve our response now, based on science, I fear the pandemic will get worse and be prolonged,” Bright said. “There will be likely a resurgence of Covid-19 this fall, and it will greatly compound the challenges of seasonal influenza.”

In his written testimony, Bright describes “dismissive” HHS leadership. He said that, as early as January, he warned the department to ramp up production of ventilators, personal protective equipment, and testing swabs in anticipation of a pandemic, and that his warnings were ignored.

“I was met with indifference, saying they were either too busy, they didn’t have a plan, they didn’t know who was responsible for procuring those,” Bright said of his push for HHS to obtain more PPE. “A number of excuses. But never any action.”

Bright also said in prepared testimony that he was “cut out of key high-level meetings to combat COVID-19.”

Bright is sounding the alarm about Trump’s politicization of medical science

In April, Bright filed a whistleblower complaint over his removal from the top BARDA job. In the complaint, he claims that he resisted a White House push to promote and fund the now-discredited antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus remedy over more promising solutions.

“Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safely and effectively address this urgent public health crisis,” Bright wrote in the letter.

The complaint was first reported by Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times.

The Office of the Special Counsel has since concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Bright was retaliated against and that he should be reinstated to his former job as BARDA director.

The same watchdog reportedly found a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” in Bright’s removal, according to a statement released by his lawyers Thursday.

During Thursday’s hearing, however, Republicans on the committee focused more on making that case that President Trump had good reason to promote hydroxychloroquine than they did on getting to the bottom of the circumstances surrounding Bright’s removal.

Others attacked Bright. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), for instance, suggested Bright was trying to “deceive the American people” by taking a medical leave for hypertension, and Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) attempted to spin Bright’s criticism of HHS leadership as an attack on Fauci.

Meanwhile, during a Q&A with reporters ahead of Trump’s trip to Pennsylvania, administration officials tried to undercut Bright’s testimony by attacking him.

“While we are launching Operation Warp Speed, he is not showing up for work,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.