The sinking feeling for Rick Bright, then the head of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, came in January when a colleague warned him in an email that the United States was woefully unprepared to provide protective equipment to healthcare workers confronting COVID-19.
"I will never forget the mail I received ... indicating that our mask supply, our N95 respirator supply, was completely decimated," Bright told Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes Thursday at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. "‘We're in deep shit, the world is, and we need to act.' And I pushed it forward to the highest level I could in HHS and got no response." BARDA is housed in the Department of Health and Human Services under the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. "From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for healthcare workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball," Bright said. "That was our last window of opportunity to turn on the production and save the lives of those healthcare workers. And we didn't act." Bright was removed from his job in late April, and shifted to a different post at the National Institutes of Health. He filed a whistleblower complaint alleging it was retaliation because he kept trying to sound the alarm on COVID-19 against pressure from the administration. President Trump belittled Bright as a "disgruntled" worker Thursday and HHS Secretary Alex Azar said everyone was just as concerned as the deposed BARDA boss. "This is like somebody who was in a choir and is now trying to say he was a soloist back then," Azar said, standing by Trump. But at the hearing with Bright, Democratic members of the committee laid out a timeline of events that reminded people exactly how un-seriously the White House appeared to take the disease, long after Bright got that sinking feeling. One who went through much of the timeline was Rep. Nannette Barragan (D-Calif.). She noted that the World Health Organization had held a call on Jan. 20 raising the alarm, and that Bright pushed his bosses for greater urgency based on it. On Jan. 23, she said, Bright briefed Azar on the many shortages that he faced. The next day, President Trump tweeted in praise of China's response and said, "It will all work out well." On Jan. 29, Azar reportedly told Trump the disease was "under control," and Trump repeated that the next day. Barragan noted that the disconnect between the official line and reality continued through February, even as Bright and some others in the administration continued to raise alarms. On Feb. 10, Trump declared, "It looks like by April, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away," and that the U.S. had only 11 cases, all on the mend. Bright also raised the need, based on past estimates going back to the Bush administration, that the country would need 3.5 billion masks for healthcare workers. But on Feb. 25, Azar told Congress the administration would procure just 300 million. Trump maintained the falsely upbeat narrative on Feb. 26 when he said, "When you have 15 people and 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job you've done." Even as late as March 10, when there were more than 1,000 cases in the United States and 30 dead, Trump declared, "It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away." After that recitation, Barragan asked what the impact was. "I believe Americans need to be told the truth, and I believe that the best scientific advice and guidance was not being conveyed to the American public during that time," Bright said. "People were not as prepared as they could have been and should have been. We did not forewarn people. We did not train people. We did not educate them on social distancing and wearing a mask, as we should have in January and February," Bright said. "All of those forewarnings, and all those educational opportunities for the American public could have had an impact on further slowing this outbreak and saving more lives."