The Trump administration’s timetable for developing a coronavirus treatment is likely too optimistic and has no plan in place for mass production and distribution of such a vaccine, a federal whistle-blower told Congress Thursday.
Rick Bright, a senior vaccine expert at the Department of Health and Human Services until his ouster last month, said plans to develop a vaccine by early next year required “everything to go perfectly” and “we’ve never seen everything go perfectly.”
The administration has dubbed its effort to prepare a vaccine “Operation Warp Speed,” and President Trump claimed Thursday in an interview on Fox Business that a vaccine could be available by the end of the year.
Even if a treatment is developed, the federal government still lacks a plan to produce tens of millions of doses of a vaccine, Bright told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“We need to have a strategy and plan in place now to make sure that we cannot only fill that vaccine, make it, distribute it, but administer it in a fair and equitable plan,” he said. “We do not have that yet, and it is a significant concern.”
Democrats on the panel praised Bright for pushing the administration to ramp up its response in the first months of the outbreak while Republicans sought to poke holes in his claims that senior officials had ignored his warnings.
Bright was abruptly removed in April as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a research agency within the Health and Human Services Department that, among other duties, was overseeing research on coronavirus vaccines.
He filed a whistle-blower complaint last week alleging he was reassigned to a lesser job in retaliation after warning repeatedly in January and February about the need for masks and other protective equipment to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.
He said senior officials also pressured him to back widespread use of anti-malaria drugs touted by President Trump as a treatment for the virus, even after Bright warned about possible health dangers of allowing the drug to be used without doctor supervision.
Trump on Thursday dismissed Bright as a discontented employee. “I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, 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!” the president tweeted.
The Health and Human Services Department sought to rebut Bright’s claims, saying that “his whistle-blower complaint is filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation.”
Democrats on the committee defended Bright as an experienced expert who was ignored by superiors who sought to please Trump by playing down the severity of the virus.
“In you, we have somebody who made the right call in the early days and has been removed from your position while so many people who made the wrong call still have their jobs,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.).
Bright said one of his lowest moments came when his attempt to ramp up production of respirator masks went nowhere.
He recalled receiving emails in January from Mike Bowen, executive vice president of a medical supply company called Prestige Ameritech, who warned that U.S. supplies of N95 respirator masks were “completely decimated.”
“I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response,” Bright said. “From that moment I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our healthcare workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball.”
Republicans avoided criticizing Bright directly, noting that some of his suggestions were adopted after Bright contacted White House aide Peter Navarro, who shared his ideas for combating the virus with other officials around Trump.
Navarro and other administration officials declined to appear at the Thursday hearing.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) attacked Bright for not reporting to his new assignment and instead taking sick leave for high blood pressure and hypertension.
“You’re too sick to go into work, but you’re well enough to come here while getting paid,” said Mullin. “I have a hard time understanding that.”
A federal watchdog agency said last week there were “reasonable grounds” that the administration was retaliating against Bright and called for him to be reinstated while the complaint is being investigated. Bright is seeking reinstatement to his old job.
Bright, who has a doctorate in immunology, called for additional measures to head off a spike in cases in the fall, including increasing public education about preventative measures, ramping up production of medical supplies and announcing a national testing strategy.
“The undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID-19 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our healthcare system,” Bright said in his prepared testimony. “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be [the] darkest winter in modern history.”