Rick Bright details mismanaged pandemic response, warns of drugs, vaccine supply problems down the road; HHS pushes back
In wide-ranging congressional testimony, the ousted head of an agency at the center of the federal government’s Covid-19 vaccine and treatment response criticized the Trump administration for a slow-footed federal response that could resound throughout the course of the pandemic.
“I believe we could have done better,” Rick Bright, former chief of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), told a House subcommittee. “We don’t have the right leadership for this response and we don’t have the right plan for this response.”
Bright, who has headed BARDA since 2016, was removed from his post in April. Several days later, he accused HHS of reassigning him because he opposed efforts to put significant funds behind Covid-19 drugs not supported by data, including the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine. Bright subsequently filed a whistleblower complaint detailing a long history of political interference at the agency, setting up a much-anticipated congressional hearing on Thursday.
Thursday morning, in the leadup to Bright’s testimony, President Trump dismissed Bright on Twitter as a “disgruntled employee” who he had never heard of. And HHS released a lengthy rebuttal to the whistleblower complaints, setting the stage for some of the line of questioning Republicans used during the hearing.
“Mr. Bright has not yet shown up for work, but continues to collect his $285,010 salary, while using his taxpayer-funded medical leave to work with partisan attorneys who are politicizing the response to COVID-19,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “His whistleblower complaint is filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation.”
The Office of Special Counsel, a government watchdog, however, preliminarily determined today there was evidence backing Bright’s claims and that he should be reinstated.
Unstrapping a black cloth mask to testify, Bright pointed to mismanagement at HHS from the early days of the pandemic. He said he tried to secure a sample of the virus in January to help expedite the development of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, but the agency was not able to acquire one until February. He attempted to get funding for vaccines and countermeasures in his first meeting with HHS secretary Alex Azar, he said, but Azar was puzzled by his question, he said, and over the months his continued calls for urgency led to him being shut out.
“I was told that my urgings caused a commotion and I was removed from those meetings,” Bright said.
He pointed to emails, mentioned from his whistleblower complaint, he received in January from Mike Bowen, the head of mask manufacturer Prestige Ameritech, offering N95s and warning the US had insufficient domestic supply.
“He said ‘we’re in deep shit, the world is, and we need to act’ and I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response,” Bright said. “From that point I knew we were going to have a crisis.”
In their statement, HHS said Bright was not responsible for masks and said Bright’s “assumption that others were not concerned with and working on various workstreams related to COVID-19 preparedness is bizarre and false.”
Although Bright’s complaint pinned his ouster on his opposition to hydroxychloroquine, journalists pointed out that Bright’s signature was on the documents authorizing the emergency use of the pill for Covid-19 patients. In their statement, HHS called Bright the “sponsor” of the hydroxychloroquine effort who “celebrated” when the government was able to secure the supply.
Bright told the House that he had been “directed to” file those authorizations by the Trump administration. He argued the supply was necessary for clinical trials but not outside it. Alongside other government scientists, he said, he had worked to push back on administration efforts to set up an expanded access protocol by which people — including those who hadn’t tested positive to Covid-19 — could have access to the potentially dangerous drug outside of a hospital. “We had to come up with an alternate solution that the administration would accept,” he said.
While initially successful, Bright said, he then learned of and spoke out against a subsequent government plan to “flood” New York and New Jersey with the anti-malarial, leading to his ouster.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Bright recalled, “and expedited my removal.”
Turning toward more recent controversy, Bright said a chaotic government response has endangered patients and could impede the response going forward. Over the week-and-a-half since the FDA authorized the use of remdesivir as the first drug shown to have efficacy against Covid-19, doctors have sharply criticized the government for how they’ve distributed the Gilead antiviral, with no clear criteria announced and some hospitals with larger numbers of patients unable to secure a supply.
Bright was no longer at BARDA when remdesivir was authorized, but he said no plan had been put in place to prepare for when it was.
“There was never action taken on the urgency to come up with a plan for acquisition of limited doses,” Bright said, “nor to distribute the limited doses of remdesivir.”
Now, Bright said, similar problems loom for potential vaccines, once they’re shown to work. Although BARDA and the leading vaccine companies have put significant funds into scaling up manufacturing, an approved vaccine will still come in batches rather than all at once, posing a need to equitably distribute the doses until they are available. Bright revealed that the government had secured access to some of those doses with their funding agreements, but he said there’s little plan for how to give them out.
“It’s going to be a limited supply,” Bright said. “We need to have a strategy and a plan in place now. We don’t have that yet and it is a significant concern.”
For a look at all Endpoints News coronavirus stories, check out our special news channel.