‘I Was Met With Indifference’: Whistleblower Testifies on HHS Leaders' Response to His Early Coronavirus Concerns
Former vaccine agency director removed from position after speaking out implores Trump administration to let federal scientists "speak truthfully without fear of retribution."
A prominent federal whistleblower told lawmakers on Thursday his early concerns about the novel coronavirus went ignored by top Trump administration officials, adding that the advice of career scientists has been routinely sidelined throughout the government’s response.
Rick Bright ultimately lost his job as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority within the Health and Human Services Department due to his outspokenness over his concerns, the career federal scientist said. Bright has filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel after his removal and reassignment to another position in the National Institutes of Health. OSC has issued a preliminary ruling in Bright’s favor, according to his attorneys.
The United States remains significantly unprepared for a mass manufacturing and deployment of a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, Bright told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s panel on health, suggesting the government needs an interagency, comprehensive plan to to ramp up testing, boost supplies and deliver potential treatments. Bright repeatedly said that HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kaldec and other department officials ignored his warnings in mid-January. He implored the Trump administration to listen to scientific experts as it develops response plans going forward.
“The truth must be based on scientific evidence and not filtered for political reasons,” Bright said. “We must know and appreciate what we are up against. We have the world’s greatest scientists—they must be permitted to lead. Let them speak truthfully without fear of retribution.”
Bright highlighted several issues he raised that he said went ignored. In January, he asked Azar and Kaldec for more money, virus samples and staffing. BARDA was not immediately provided with the samples, which Bright said led to further delays in developing countermeasures and, ultimately, an end to stay-home orders. He also said he sounded the alarm on shortages of personal protective equipment in the national stockpile, though top officials pushed aside the warning.
“It clearly was not an issue he wanted to discuss on that day,” Bright said of one of his conversations with Kaldec. “We were rebuffed.”
The former director recalled receiving dozens of notices in January from private sector business owners raising concerns about disruptions to the supply chain and the challenges that could present for securing the requisite equipment if the virus continued to spread. He said he would “never forget” an email he received from a manufacturer of N95 respirators who wrote, “We’re in deep shit. The world is, and we need to act.” He forwarded each of those messages up the chain of command, but they were not taken seriously, he said.
“On each of those I was met with indifference,” Bright said, recalling that officials responded by “saying either they were too busy, they didn’t have a plan, they didn’t know who was responsible for procuring those, in some cases they had a sick child and would get back to it later in the week. A number of excuses and never any action.”
He added that as he continued to raise the issue of mask shortages, HHS officials told him the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could simply revise its guidelines to tell fewer Americans to wear masks and thereby save the reserves for frontline health care workers.
“I cannot believe you would sit there and say that with a straight face,” Bright recalled responding. “That is absurd.”
Bright said he continued his push for procuring more PPE and other necessary supplies, including syringes and swabs, into February and March. Eventually, he said, he was cut out of "key, high-level meetings to combat COVID-19" because, he was told, his comments were “causing a commotion.” Bright said he reached out to White House adviser Peter Navarro directly after his own supervisors ignored his concerns, and praised Navarro for taking his concerns seriously and helping deliver results in some cases. That led, however, to Bright facing increased "hostility and marginalization" at HHS. He said he ultimately was pushed out of his position after he sounded the alarm about what he viewed as the administration’s overzealous pursuit of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.
Bright acknowledged there was a need to move swiftly in trials but cautioned research must be conducted carefully and in a clinical setting under a physician’s supervision. He spoke out when he learned of an effort to push the drug on a widespread basis in hard-hit communities like New York and New Jersey. Under significant pressure, Bright said his team agreed to issue an “expanded access protocol” for the drug so its use would at least have some guardrails in place guaranteeing close physician supervision. His resistance in that case, he said, was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” leading to his removal.
Democrats on the panel praised Bright for his bravery in coming forward. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee, said Bright filed “one of the most specific and troubling whistleblower complaints I’ve ever seen.”
“He was not only ignored, he was fired for being right,” Eshoo said. “We can’t have a system where the government fires those who get it right.”
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said the Trump administration was following a “dangerous impulse” to dismiss science for political considerations.
“Here we are at a moment when our country needs the kind of expertise and science-based guidance that you and others like you can offer us,” Sarbanes said. “These voices are too often being sidelined.”
Most Republicans, meanwhile, questioned Bright’s motives and timeline. They followed President Trump’s example, who tweeted at the outset of the hearing that Bright should be removed from government entirely.
“I don’t know the so-called whistleblower Rick Bright,” Trump said, “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!”
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., questioned why Bright had to take sick leave, and subsequently annual leave, for symptoms related to stress from his dismissal while still maintaining the capacity to file a whistleblower complaint and testify to Congress.
“I just want to make sure you’re not doing something to deceive the American people,” Mullin said.
Bright cautioned the 12- to 18-month timeline for developing a COVID-19 vaccine is likely overly optimistic. He said that while the government could have done better and taken more critical steps earlier in the process, the country can still mitigate the pandemic’s impact going forward by listening to the advice of career scientists.
“We can devise a comprehensive strategy, we can devise a plan,” he said. “Time is running out because the virus is still spreading everywhere.”
On Thursday, House Democrats announced they will add a measure to protect science and scientists at federal agencies to a $3 trillion bill to help the country respond to and recover from the pandemic.