Rick Bright testified before congressional committee that as virus spreads in US the ‘window is closing to address this pandemic’
Americans should brace themselves for the risk that they will suffer their “darkest winter in modern history” due to the ongoing federal government failures in addressing the coronavirus pandemic, a recently ousted public health official turned whistleblower warned the US Congress.
Rick Bright, who was removed from his role heading a federal agency in charge of vaccines last month, told a congressional committee on Thursday that as the virus continues to spread in the US the “window is closing to address this pandemic” because the Trump administration still lacks a comprehensive plan to tackle Covid-19.
“Time is running out because the virus is still spreading everywhere, people are getting restless to leave their homes,” Bright told the lawmakers, many wearing masks or bandannas over their faces. In written testimony, he added that without a proper response “I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities”.
Bright was director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for nearly four years but was shifted from the role in April. In a whistleblower complaint, Bright has claimed he was removed after resisting pressure by the administration to make “potentially harmful drugs widely available”, including chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.
These two anti-malarial drugs have been repeatedly touted as a treatment for Covid-19 by Donald Trump, despite them not going through clinical trials for this use and mixed results in initial studies on their efficacy.
The US president has also publicly pondered the benefits of injecting disinfectants into patients, a statement widely condemned as dangerous by public health officials and bleach manufacturers.
In his testimony to Congress, Bright wrote that “science, not politics or cronyism, must lead the way to combat this deadly virus”. He added: “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history.”
The warning came as Covid-19 deaths continued to mount in the US, with more than 83,000 people perishing from the virus, which has infected more than 1.3 million to make the US the world’s most serious coronavirus hotspot.
Mass joblessness has swept the US as businesses shut down to slow the pandemic, with 36 million people filing for unemployment benefits in the past two months.
This death toll would probably be much lower had the Trump administration acted far more quickly to address the crisis, Bright told the hearing. He said his efforts to obtain early viral samples from China was met with “frustration and dismissal” from leaders in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Bright claimed he also agitated for a greater stockpile of masks, swabs and other urgently needed medical equipment but was met with “indifference” and was then sidelined. “I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion and I was removed from those meetings,” he said.
Bright said the gravity of the unfolding crisis was made clear to him by an email from the co-owner of Prestige Ameritech, a manufacturer of N95 respiratory masks. “He said: ‘We are in deep shit, the world is, and we need to act,’” Bright told lawmakers.
“I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could at HHS and got no response. From that moment I knew we’d have a crisis with our healthcare workers because we were not taking action. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production to save the lives of those healthcare workers and we didn’t act.”
In a statement, HHS said it “strongly disagrees” with the “one-sided arguments and misinformation” contained in Bright’s whistleblower complaint.
Trump used his favoured medium of Twitter on Thursday morning to repeat his claim that he had never heard of the “so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright”. The president then added that “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!”
The attack was Trump’s second in two days on a senior infectious disease expert. On Wednesday, he criticized Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for warning against restarting economic activity too quickly.
Fauci testified at a hearing on Tuesday that the coronavirus was still out of control in the US and rushing to reopen before numbers of new cases and deaths were on a steady decline risked “serious consequences”. He remarked the night before that premature reopening risked “needless suffering and death”.
Fauci also stressed to US senators the unknown effects the coronavirus could have on children returning to reopened schools.
“I was surprised by his answer,” Trump told reporters. “To me it’s not an acceptable answer, especially when it comes to schools.”
On Thursday, a small but heavily armed group of protesters gathered outside the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, demanding the end of stay-at-home orders and calling for the resignation of the governor.
Michigan closed down its capitol and canceled its legislative session rather than face the possibility of the armed militia members disrupting business, amid a flurry of online death threats against the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
Such protests broke out in Michigan first and then spread to other states in recent weeks, despite opinion polls showing a majority of Americans do not support widespread reopening for business while the pandemic is still raging. The protests were coordinated and also backed by various rightwing groups.
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