Whistleblower: U.S. needs coordinated national testing strategy, vaccine plan

U.S. Capitol | Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Dr. Rick Bright, the federal scientist who blew the whistle on the President Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, on Thursday warned Capitol Hill policymakers about how the “window of opportunity is closing” on coordinating an effective federal response to the disease.

“We need a national testing strategy,” Bright said, during his testimony before members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. “The virus is here. It’s everywhere. We need to be able to find it, isolate it and stop it.”

Rick Bright | Wikimedia Commons

Bright headed the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) — a key U.S. vaccine research agency — from 2016 until his removal in April 2020. He alleges his early warnings about the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 85,000 Americans, were ignored by federal officials. 

In April, he filed a whistleblower complaint, citing a lack of adequate pandemic preparation from the administration. He claims he was removed from his position as BARDA director and reassigned to a new role within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in retaliation.

“Our nation was not as prepared as it could have been,” Bright told members of the health subcommittee. “Some scientists raised early warning signals that were overlooked, and pages from our pandemic playbook were ignored by some in leadership.”

U.S. Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-Calif.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, asked Bright what he meant when he previously said 2020 could be “the darkest winter in modern history.”

“My concern about this fall is compounded by my knowledge and preparation and response to many years of influenza outbreaks — pandemic influenza outbreaks and seasonal influenza outbreaks. … That, coupled with a COVID-19 resurgence this fall, could be devastating for our healthcare systems and for Americans,” Bright said, speaking about the potential for the U.S. to experience a second, possibly deadlier “wave” of new COVID-19 cases.

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U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) brought up the disease’s impact in Michigan, which has for weeks been sitting at third-most deaths in the nation until it dropped to fourth-most this week. Almost 4,800 have died in the state and there are almost 50,000 cases.

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“I want to learn from what’s happened so we keep that ‘dark winter’ you’re talking about from happening,” she said. “You identified serious problems and then suggested fixes when it came to diagnostics, N-95 masks, other equipment and medicines.”

Dingell asked if Bright believes lives would have been saved and the pandemic’s severity cut down if his suggestions of increasing diagnostics and supplying more N-95 masks and medical equipment had been implemented.

“I believe lives would’ve been saved if we had proper medical protective equipment for our healthcare workers,” Bright responded. “People died because they didn’t have appropriate protective equipment to save their lives and protect them from getting infected.”

Lawmakers also questioned Bright on the timeline for creating a viable COVID-19 vaccine. He said he thinks it will take longer to manufacture a vaccine and, even when one is developed, it will still need to go through an approvals process by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

“A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12- to 18-month timeline, if everything goes perfectly,” Bright told them. “We’ve never seen anything go perfectly. My concern is if we rush too quickly, and consider cutting out critical steps, we may not have a full assessment of the safety of that vaccine.”

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U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who represents the Bronx and Westchester County — areas hit hard by the pandemic — criticized the current administration’s response, saying it has “failed at every turn.”

Engel brought up the issue of hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria and lupus patients.Trump endorses the drug as effective in treating COVID-19 patients even though medical officials have said its use poses major health risks

“We also knew there were potential safety risks with chloroquine to cause irregular heart rhythms, and even in some cases, death,” Bright told Engel. “Our concern was with limited information and knowledge, especially of its use in COVID-19 infected patients and the potential for those risks.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other medical agencies need to make sure any studies with hydroxychloroquine are “carefully controlled,” he added. 

Bright testified he believes part of his removal from BARDA is due to his pushing back at the idea of expanding Americans’ access to the drug, something he claims was asked of him by HHS officials. 

He said he rejected it, concerned that use of the drug would not be regulated by physicians. Scientists at the FDA, BARDA, NIH and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) later worked to issue an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine, but it could only be used under lock-and-key by doctors in hospital settings who confirmed COVID-19 in their patients. 

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His concerns were “alleviated somewhat” by being able to lock the drug in the Strategic National Stockpile with those specific conditions. However, his concerns rose again when HHS leadership pushed to make chloroquine available outside of emergency settings, he said. 

“When I spoke outside of our government and shared my concerns for the American public, that, I believe, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and escalated my removal,” Bright said.

In an exchange with U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), Bright said speaking out on his concerns about the drug — and, by extension, questioning the federal government’s pandemic response — were not politically motivated. 

“Was it because the president was encouraged by the use of this drug that you became discouraged by it?” Carter asked. 

“Had nothing to do with politics, sir. I wanted to make sure Americans were aware of the risks of this drug,” Bright replied. 

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The key thing he wanted people to take away from his testimony is the need for transparency in science. If a coordinated national response is not taken seriously and medical supplies aren’t ramped up, the nation is in for a potentially devastating fall, Bright said. 

“My message is we have limited time,” he added. “We have the greatest scientific minds in our country [to develop plans]. We need to listen to them, put the plan in place and everyone get busy stopping this virus.”