It was a single, salty sentence that first made Rick Bright realize a pandemic crisis was coming: “We’re in deep shit.”
The warning had come in an email in late January, weeks before the deaths began piling up and the American economy all but shut down. The head of a Texas mask manufacturer, Mark Bowen, was confirming what Bright had long known—that the nation had nowhere near the supply of N95 masks it would soon need. “From that moment,” Bright told a House committee today, “I knew that we were going to have a crisis with our health-care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production, to save the lives of those health-care workers, and we didn’t act.”
Bright was then the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a federal public-health agency involved in developing vaccines and treatments to protect the country from pandemics like the novel coronavirus. He’s now a congressional whistleblower, and the latest federal bureaucrat to cast the Trump administration in a withering light.
Those four words, punctuated by the profanity, also neatly summarize Bright’s stark message to Congress over the course of his four-hour testimony: The United States dropped the ball early in the pandemic, and it remains woefully unprepared for the painful months to come. “Lives were endangered,” he said, “and I believe lives were lost.” Without a significantly improved federal response, Bright told lawmakers, “2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history.”
Bright voiced doubt that a safe and effective vaccine would be available within the 12-to-18-month timetable that federal health officials have given—a lag that President Donald Trump has already said he wants to cut in half. “I still think 12 to 18 months is an aggressive schedule, and I think it’s going to take longer than that to do so,” Bright said.
And he warned that even if a vaccine is developed, the U.S. currently lacks the supplies necessary to make it universally available. Nor does it have a plan in place to procure them. “We don’t have a single point of leadership for this response,” Bright said, “and we don’t have a master plan for this response.”
Bright’s testimony represented a far more pointed and damaging critique of the administration’s performance than Anthony Fauci’s remote appearance before a Senate panel yesterday; Fauci has toed a careful line, at times contradicting the president without criticizing him directly. But taken together, their warnings about a resurgence of the virus in the fall served as a sobering check on the rush to normalcy that Trump has been cheerleading. And they appear to be aimed not so much at the American public, which, according to polls, recognizes the ferocity and staying power of COVID-19, but at the president and his allied Republican governors who are pushing to reopen faster than public-health experts believe is safe.
“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Bright said. “If we fail to improve our response now, I fear the pandemic will get worse and be prolonged.”
Bright was testifying today because the Trump administration removed him from his post—an action he says was spurred by objections he raised to the wide-scale distribution of an antimalarial drug that the president had promoted as a treatment for COVID-19. Last week, Bright, through his attorneys, filed an 89-page whistleblower complaint with the federal Office of Special Counsel outlining his allegations. He told Congress that his repeated early warnings about supply shortages and the coronavirus threat went unheeded. “I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion, and I was removed from those meetings,” Bright said.
Bright was transferred to a lower-level position at the National Institutes of Health, and he is now appealing to get his job at BARDA back. Shortly before the hearing began this morning, Trump denounced him as “a disgruntled employee” who, “with his attitude, should not be working for our government.” Bright is part of a cohort of whistleblowers who have accused the administration, and in some cases the president directly, of impropriety or incompetence over the past three years. And though the social-distancing policy of the pandemic stripped this hearing of the usual visual drama, Bright’s indictment of the government was no less devastating.
Unlike Fauci, who is self-quarantining after a potential exposure to the coronavirus, Bright testified in person on Capitol Hill. He wore a mask when he entered, and most members of the committee wore masks except while they were speaking. In a setting that was already far from normal, Bright’s utterance of a four-letter profanity in a formal televised hearing barely seemed to register with lawmakers. For the most part, Republicans treated him with more restraint than the president did on Twitter, although some faulted him for how he’d raised his concerns within the government. Unlike during last year’s impeachment hearings, when a parade of current and formal federal officials spoke out against Trump, there were few fawning GOP defenses of the president.
What was remarkable, however, and perhaps should be most troubling to the public, is that even in the partisan environment of a congressional hearing room, Bright’s core contention—that the federal government isn’t ready for a resurgence of a pandemic that could takes tens of thousands more lives this fall and winter—went largely uncontested.