‘Darkest winter in modern history’ may be ahead, whistleblower to testify

COVID-19 has potential to eclipse 1918 influenza's devastation

Drive-thru testing was offered in Virginia in March to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Drive-thru testing was offered in Virginia in March to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 1:39pm

A Trump administration health official who filed a whistleblower complaint last week plans to tell Congress Thursday that without a science-based national response to the pandemic, 2020 will be the “darkest winter in modern history.”

“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Rick Bright will tell the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, according to his prepared testimony.

The mortality of the pandemic could be “unprecedented” and ultimately outstrip the 50 million casualties of the 1918 influenza epidemic, wrote Bright, who was recently transferred from his position as Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority director.

“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,” his testimony reads. “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.”

“If we ignore the science, we stand a dramatically increased risk of worsening the spread of the virus in the coming months. This could lead to more widespread outbreaks and to many more lives lost,” he continues.

Bright wrote in his formal whistleblower complaint that he was demoted from his post as director of BARDA in retaliation for challenging the pace of the Trump administration’s emergency response.

Bright warns of the potential for "unprecedented illness and fatalities." (Courtesy HHS)

Bright says he resisted the efforts of Trump appointees to make hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, antimalarial drugs with no proven benefit for treating COVID-19, widely available. Bright said tablets of chloroquine accepted by the Strategic National Stockpile were manufactured in overseas plants previously barred from U.S. sale by the Food and Drug Administration.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees BARDA, are expected to rebut Bright’s testimony by underscoring that Bright requested the emergency use authorization from the FDA for those donations of chloroquine.

“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,” said HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley in a statement.

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The committee will also hear from Michael Bowen, executive vice president of medical device company Prestige Ameritech, who exchanged emails with Bright about a severe shortage of N95 respirators in the national stockpile in the early days of the crisis, according to Bright’s complaint.

Bowen offered to ramp up his supply of the vital personal protective equipment but was ignored, the complaint alleges.

Bowen will testify that he sent “13 years of emails to BARDA” in an “effort to get HHS to understand that the US mask supply was destined for failure,” according to his prepared testimony.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess of Texas, the top Republican on the subcommittee, has called Thursday’s hearing premature.

Burgess said in a letter to Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., on Tuesday that Trump appointees should have been given the opportunity to rebut Bright’s claims.

The warning comes as Democrats criticize President Donald Trump for encouraging the relaxation of social distancing measures in favor of resuming economic activity.

A 63-page guidance written by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologists outlining how to safely reopen the economy was reportedly scrapped by the White House.

The guidance, called the “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” was leaked in a press report. It sets more thorough metrics to be met by businesses and state governments than the White House’s current guidance.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer asked for unanimous consent on the floor Wednesday to express the sense of the Senate that the report should be released to the public immediately and without “political censorship.”

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., objected, casting the CDC experts as “bureaucrats.”