May 14, 2020 - Health

Ousted vaccine chief: I was told my pandemic warnings were "causing a commotion"

Rick Bright, who was removed from his position as head of a top vaccine agency last month, testified Thursday to the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he was cut out of meetings and was told his repeated warnings about the Trump administration's lack of preparedness for the coronavirus were "causing a commotion" in January and February.

The big picture: The former director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority said there were "critical steps" that the Trump administration failed to take early on, including securing viral samples from China and ramping up production of the country's stockpile of medical supplies.

  • In his opening statement, Bright testified that the "window of opportunity" is closing and that the U.S. could face the "darkest winter in modern history" if it doesn't develop a national coordinated response
  • Bright was ousted from his position in April, which he claimed was a result of a leadership clash within the Department of Health and Human Services over his attempts to limit the use of hydroxychloroquine — an unproven drug heavily touted by President Trump — to treat the coronavirus.

What he's saying: In late January and early February, Bright said he pointed to several opportunities within the administration to respond to the looming pandemic, like coming up with a plan to acquire doses of the drug remdesivir and increase production of personal protective equipment.

  • His warnings, he said, "were not responded to with action. ... There was no action taken on the urgency to come up with a plan for acquisition of limited doses of remdesivir, nor to distribute those limited doses of remdesivir once we had the scientific data to support their use for people infected with this virus."
  • "I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion, and I was removed from those meetings."

Later in his testimony, Bright was asked to recount a moment in January in which he realized that the U.S. was unprepared for the pandemic. He responded:

“I’ll never forget the emails I received from [mask manufacturer] Mike Bowen indicating that our mask supply, our N95 respirator supply, was completely decimated. And 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. And 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."

The other side: Republicans on the subcommittee have questioned the rushed nature of Bright's appearance Thursday, arguing that his whistleblower complaint should have first been investigated by the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee before his testimony.

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