In mid-January, Dr. Rick Bright warned the Trump administration that the United States faced a critical shortage of the surgical masks that medical professionals would need to safely combat a coronavirus outbreak. At the time, Bright was a program leader with the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority who advised the Department of Health and Human Services on vaccines and other pandemic-related issues. His advice was not appreciated, as Bright alleges in a whistle-blower complaint revealed Tuesday.
The Trump administration declined to act on Bright’s calls for shoring up mask production supply chains, with Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec saying in mid-January — after the novel coronavirus had escaped containment in Wuhan — that he was not “sure if that is a time-sensitive urgency.” Eventually, Bright’s views on this and other subjects became so irksome to his superiors, they excluded him from a meeting on COVID-19, despite the fact that the meeting’s agenda listed him as a participant.
Weeks later — once the “time-sensitive urgency” of the novel coronavirus became unmistakable — Bright found a new way to vex the administration, according to the complaint. At this point, President Trump had transitioned from pretending the virus had been contained to pretending that an anti-malaria drug called hydroxychloroquine was a miracle cure for it. There was scant evidence that the drug was an effective treatment for COVID-19, and good reason to fear that its well-known side effects — among them, ventricular arrhythmia and low blood pressure — could make COVID patients sicker. Nevertheless, HHS Secretary Alex Azar pressured Bright to facilitate the mass distribution of hydroxychloroquine to coronavirus hot spots.
“Dr. Bright opposed the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as lacking scientific merit, even though the Administration promoted it as a panacea and demanded that New York and New Jersey be ‘flooded’ with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA,” the complaint alleges. “Dr. Bright felt an urgent and compelling need to inform the American public that there was insufficient scientific data to support the use of these drugs for COVID-19 patients — particularly given their importation from factories abroad that had not been inspected by the FDA.”
Thus, Bright spoke to a reporter about the dangers of hydroxychloroquine. Once that report was published, Azar and Kadlec (correctly) concluded that Bright had been the source, and punitively reassigned him to a lower position within the National Institutes of Health, the complaint claims.
In recent days, the Trump administration has attempted to deflect blame for America’s still-growing coronavirus outbreak onto the Chinese government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made the unsubstantiated allegation that the novel coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab, and accused Beijing of undermining the global response to COVID-19 by withholding information. But as Bright’s complaint (and just about all available reporting on the White House’s actions in January and February) makes clear, even if Pompeo’s claims were true, they would do nothing to absolve the administration of its negligent response to the pandemic. Even if the novel coronavirus were a Chinese bioweapon (which it is not), it would not change the fact that the president ignored warnings that America lacked the resources it needed to protect its people from the virus in January, and then attempted to “flood” the country with a dangerous, ineffective drug because he trusted his gut instinct (and/or Fox News) over the counsel of government scientists.