HHS whistleblower criticizes pandemic response on 60 Minutes

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Appearing on 60 Minutes last Sunday, Dr. Rick Bright repeated claims that top administration officials ignored warnings that the US medical supply chain was inadequate to meet the demands of the looming pandemic.

Until recently, Bright managed  the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an agency of the Health and Human Services Administration. BARDA’s website states, ” established to aid in securing our nation from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats, as well as from pandemic influenza (PI) and emerging infectious diseases (EID). BARDA supports the transition of medical countermeasures such as vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics from research through advanced development towards consideration for approval by the FDA and inclusion into the Strategic National Stockpile.

Only a few months before the current pandemic, BARDA participated in an emergency exercise named “Crimson Contagion” that revealed inadequacies in medical supplies, including vaccines, personal protective gear, and test equipment. But, Bright’s efforts to get administration leadership to immediately stock up went nowhere. “The entire leadership was focused on containment,” he said. Those efforts to keep the virus from reaching the US only slowed its advance. (CBS News)

When the government did finally decide to take action, it encountered a major obstacle:  Most US manufacturing of critical medical supplies had been off-shore. Mike Bowen runs one of the few remaining US manufacturers.

Norah O’Donnell: How long have you been telling anyone who would listen that, once a pandemic hits, that America would face a big problem?

Mike Bowen: Since 2007. And for 13 years, we told– we told the story that a pandemic was going to come, the mask supply was going to collapse, and foreign health officials were going to cut off masks to the United States, and that’s exactly what happened. (CBS News)

Then, President Trump began promoting a prescription drug, hydroxychloroquine, triggering a flood of demand for the drug although experts warned there was no hard evidence that it was effective in treating the COVID-19 and it could have serious side effects.

Bright says his team tried to limit access to the drugs to hospital patients only, and he shared his concerns with a reporter. On April 21, he was reassigned to what he considered a lesser role at the National Institutes of Health.  

Norah O’Donnell: You believe you were retaliated against because you raised concerns about hydroxychloroquine?

Rick Bright: Yes. I do. I believe my last ditch effort to protect Americans from that drug was the final straw that they used and believed was essential to push me out. (CBS News)

Responding to President Trump’s allegation that Bright is a “disgruntled” employee (a routine description of whistleblowers by employers), Bright said, “I am not disgruntled. I am frustrated at a lack of leadership. I am frustrated at a lack of urgency to get a head start on developing lifesaving tools for Americans. I’m frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists. Those things frustrate me.” (CBS News)

Bright, who is represented by lawyers Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency tasked with protecting federal whistleblowers. The agency reportedly has found “sufficient evidence to believe that Dr. Rick Bright was the subject of retaliation when he was removed from his job.” (The Intercept)