Whistleblower to testify 'window of opportunity is closing' to develop strategy to combat coronavirus
Rick Bright testifies before House lawmakers Thursday morning.
Rick Bright, the former head of the federal agency charged with overseeing the rapid production of a vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus, will warn of the "darkest winter in modern history" if the United States -- in his words -- does not develop a coordinated approach based in science to combat the virus.
"Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities. While it is terrifying to acknowledge the extent of the challenge that we currently confront, the undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID19 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system," Bright’s opening statement to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health reads.
"Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history," Bright plans to say.
Bright will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday.
In his prepared remarks, Bright detailed what he believes the administration must do while people wait for a cure for the virus -- including ramping up production of supplies and implementing a national testing strategy.
"The virus is out there, it’s everywhere. We need to be able to find it, to isolate it and to stop it from infecting more people. We need tests that are accurate, rapid, easy to use, low cost, and available to everyone who needs them," Bright will say.
An HHS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment on Bright’s prepared remarks.
The testimony comes following a whistleblower complaint Bright filed earlier this month alleging that he was removed from his job in "retaliation" for raising concerns over various aspects of the administration’s coronavirus response.
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Lawyers for Bright said last week that a federal watchdog had determined sufficient evidence exists that his removal may have been was retaliation. His attorneys said the Office of Special Counsel will request that the Department of Health and Human Services stay his removal while his claim is investigated.
Prior to any public statements from Bright regarding his removal as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority -- or BARDA, an HHS spokesperson said he would be moving to a position at the National Institutes of Health to lead a new initiative "to accelerate the development of Covid-19 vaccine and treatment options."
An internal message announcing Bright’s departure reviewed by ABC News congratulated Bright on the new position.
"The President and the Secretary and Congress see this as an essential effort requiring the best effort and people this Nation has," the HHS email last month said.
Responding to the whistleblower complaint earlier this month an HHS spokesperson said the agency was disappointed Bright hasn’t "shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor."
"Dr. Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing -- critical to combatting COVID-19 -- where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort. We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor," HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said in a statement at the time.
As ABC News previously reported, medical experts and sources familiar with the organization have privately raised concerns about the agency. BARDA entered the pandemic crisis with a strategic plan that had not been updated since 2016, and medical experts have privately said more funding does not mean the agency will be able to catch up in time.
"Where has the investment been going for pandemic preparedness?" asked one infectious disease expert familiar with the agency's operations.
In the lengthy whistleblower complaint, Bright details alleged instances where top government officials ignored his warnings about the threat of the virus.
Bright claims he began raising concerns as early as January, but was met with "indifference which then developed into hostility" from HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar.
He also alleges that he had been objecting to what he described as "cronyism" in HHS leadership for years and claims he faced pressure "to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism" since the spring of 2017.
Responding to the complaint, HHS spokesperson Oakley said in a subsequent statement: “This is a personnel matter that is currently under review. However, HHS strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright."
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