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A former top U.S. vaccine official and an executive of a medical mask maker in Texas each told Congress on Thursday they believe lives were lost because of missteps by the Trump administration in its early handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rick Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint after he was removed from a senior post at the Department of Health and Human Services last month, said his superiors dismissed urgent warnings in January and early February about an impending shortage of N95 respirator masks. Bright also said the administration delayed potential work on a U.S.-made vaccine by not acting fast enough or forcefully enough to press China for samples of the virus. And Bright said his removal showcased how, generally, politics overtook science as President Trump took center stage in responding to the U.S. crisis.
Bright alleged he was reassigned to a lesser post and locked out of his email account as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after pushing back against plans for the government to invest in unproven covid-19 treatments such as the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. The therapeutic that Trump touted largely has been abandoned by the government as trials since showed it can cause heart problems and other side effects in covid-19 patients.
Bright also went further, painting a bleak picture of the U.S. government’s ability going forward to manage a second wave of the virus if one coincides with the country’s winter flu season.
Bright said there is still “no master plan” for assessing the need for and distribution of masks, testing swabs and other medical equipment. Bright also said the government was doing a disserve to Americans by playing down the possibility that it could take years to develop a vaccine that could be ready for mass distribution.
The United States faces the “darkest winter in modern history” if it does not develop a more coordinated national response, he said. “Our window of opportunity is closing.”
House Republicans, an HHS spokeswoman and even Trump himself attacked Bright as the day went on.
“I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, “never met him or even heard of him, but to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!”
In a statement, HHS questioned why Bright, who has been on medical leave with hypertension since his removal, “has not yet shown up for work” and is “using his taxpayer-funded medical leave to work with partisan attorneys.”
Republicans picked up the line of questioning on Bright’s health, repeatedly asking if he was testifying as a federal employee on sick leave or as a private citizen. Bright said he had been on sick leave until this week, and under a doctor’s care for hypertension. He said he was using personal vacation time to testify.
Bright at times referenced Peter Navarro, Trump’s adviser for trade and manufacturing, saying Navarro had pushed the mask issue to the forefront, but that only happened in mid-February.
Navarro on Thursday was more critical of Bright: “I see him not just as a disgruntled employee but as a deserter in the war on the China virus,” Navarro said. “That’s a harsh thing to say, but here’s what I mean: He was asked to move to NIH to be the field general for a billion-dollar testing effort to protect and defend the American people, and he refused that assignment so he could cling to his old job. He deserted his post and he’s not a guy I’d ever want to share a foxhole with.”
Inside the Capitol, House lawmakers on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health wore face masks and spoke into microphones shielded with disposable covers. Many donned rubber surgical or cleaning gloves, and the witness table was sprayed with disinfectant and wiped down with Lysol wipes between speakers.
After the cleaning, Mike Bowen, co-owner of Prestige Ameritech, the country’s last full-line medical mask manufacturer, took his place at the witness table and recounted how he had offered to HHS to ramp up production of N95 masks in January, but his plan was cast aside.
Bowen had four mothballed manufacturing lines capable of making 7 million N95 masks a month. He said they could be restarted, probably within about 90 days, if the government would commit to a long-term contract so he could hire the 100 or so employees needed to restart production.
Emails show an HHS official responded to Bowen on Jan. 22, writing that the government was not “anywhere near” ready to engage in such a plan. Within six weeks, the government would be in a much different posture, searching the globe for masks, seizing shipments and signing contracts for tens of millions to pay novice distributors up to $5.50 per mask, or seven times what Bowen charged the government.
Under questioning, Bowen said that if HHS had taken him up on his offer, he could have been producing an additional 7 million N95 respirators a month by now.
Republicans pressed Bowen on why he hasn’t gone ahead and done so. Bowen said that he has already expanded as much as he can. He has increased production to 2 million a month, up from 75,000, and would soon double that to 4 million a month.
Going further and restarting the four lines without a contract of at least a year could force him to hire more than 100 people, train and then fire them months later. Bowen said he went through that after the government cut short expected contracts in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic, and it nearly bankrupted the business.
Bowen also pushed back on Republicans, saying he was troubled by the line of questioning he witnessed all morning.
“I’ve watched all of this a little while ago. It seemed like everyone who was beating up on Dr. Bright was a Republican and everyone who was defending him was a Democrat. I’m a Republican, I voted for President Trump and I admire Dr. Bright,” Bowen said. “I don’t know what he did in all of the other activities, but I think what he said made a lot of sense, and I believe him.”
Asked later if he was troubled by the administration’s response to the pandemic, including reassigning Bright, Bowen said he had been.
“I’m a lifelong Republican, and I’m embarrassed by how that’s been handled,” Bowen said. “Like Rick Bright said, it’s the scientists we need to be listening to, and we’re not.”
Earlier in the day, Bright said it was the warnings from Bowen that made him realize the country was in for a crisis.
“Tell me about just one specific moment when you had that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach because you were not seeing the response you knew needed to happen,” Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md) said.
“Congressman, I’ll never forget the emails I received from Mike Bowen “indicating that . . . our mask supply, our N95 mask supply, was completely decimated, and he said: ‘We’re in deep s—. The world is, and we need to act,’ ” Bright said.
“I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response. 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.”
“Listening to your testimony gives me chills,” Sarbanes responded, “because it adds up to one inescapable conclusion: It didn’t have to be this way.”
Bright also described meetings with HHS leaders including Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, saying his superiors dismissed his concerns during key early weeks.
Bright also cast doubt on hopes that a vaccine could be made available on an emergency basis within 18 months, testifying that he considers that an “aggressive schedule.”
“A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12- to 18-month time frame, if everything goes perfectly,” Bright told a House panel. “We’ve never seen everything go perfectly. My concern is that if we rush too quickly and consider cutting out critical steps, we may not have a full assessment of the safety of that vaccine.”
Bright’s assessment stands in stark contrast to that of Trump. During an interview broadcast Thursday morning, the president said he is optimistic a vaccine will be available by the end of the year.
Bright’s whistleblower complaint was newly bolstered by the Office of Special Counsel. A letter dated Tuesday and released by Bright’s attorney showed OSC had concluded there is a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” on the part of HHS for retaliating against Bright and reassigning him. The OSC forwarded the matter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whose office must now investigate and report its findings to Congress and the White House.
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Aaron Davis, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner