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Coronavirus Update: Ousted Scientist Rick Bright Testifies Before Congress

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Respirator masks are a critical piece of protective equipment to prevent health care workers from breathing in the virus. The masks have also been in short supply. And that shortage was at the center of a hearing today on Capitol Hill. The witness testifying was the public health official and whistleblower Rick Bright. He was ousted last month from his position as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, during Bright's testimony, he recalled an email he had received in late January, just about a week after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed here in the U.S. The email was from a mask maker in Texas warning that the nation's supply of respirator masks was, quote, "completely decimated."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK BRIGHT: And he said we're in deep [expletive]. The world is, and we need to act. And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response. And from that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action.

CHANG: All right. Well, for more on today's testimony and the administration's response, I'm joined now by NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis and science correspondent Allison Aubrey. Hey to both of you.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: All right. Allison, let's Start with you. Just remind us, who is Rick Bright and why was he testifying on Capitol Hill today?

AUBREY: Sure. Rick Bright is a Ph.D. scientist who was removed from his job as the director of BARDA. It's part of the federal government. Its role is to develop and procure vaccines and drugs and items such as masks needed during a pandemic. Now, he filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. He contends that he was removed from his post by top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services because of his urgings that funds allocated by Congress to tackle COVID-19 should be invested in scientifically vetted solutions and not in drugs and treatments that lack scientific merit.

CHANG: All right. Well, give us more detail on what we learned from him at today's testimony.

AUBREY: Sure. Well, in his testimony today, he said the straw that broke the camel's back that led to his removal, he thinks, was his pushback on expanded use of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine to treat patients during this pandemic. Now, this was a drug that was touted by President Trump and those with political connections to the president. Bright says there wasn't evidence to support widespread use of the drug in COVID patients. Some initial data suggests it could be harmful. And, ultimately, the FDA cautioned there should only be limited use of the drug right now in COVID patients.

CHANG: And, Sue, how did the president's allies at the hearing today respond to Bright's allegations?

DAVIS: They largely veered away from attacking Bright personally, but they were sure to defend the president's advocacy for this drug. We should also note that the White House has largely stopped touting the use of the drug in public in recent weeks. But they sort of paint a picture of saying that the Republican - that the president was working for every possible solution that could help people that had come down with COVID-19, that there was nothing sort of negligent or nefarious about the president's actions. And many of the Republicans on the committee hearing today were - are doctors and said that the anecdotal evidence of the use of the drug bolstered the president's position.

CHANG: OK. Well, the White House may have stopped touting the merits of hydroxychloroquine, but has the White House responded to Bright's testimony today?

DAVIS: Oh, yeah, they sure did. At the White House today, both President Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar were at the White House, and they pushed back. Trump has sort of characterized Bright as a disgruntled employee. Azar in HHS pointed out that he wasn't removed from his job. He was transferred to what they say is a very important new position at the National Institutes of Health to work on testing, that he's still being paid a rather generous salary and pointed to the fact that he's not working right now. He's up on Capitol Hill testifying. And this is what Azar had to say at the White House.

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ALEX AZAR: These allegations do not hold water. They do not hold water.

DAVIS: But we should note that Bright had defenders at this hearing today, too. He wasn't the only one that testified. At the same hearing, we heard from Mike Bowen. He is the mask manufacturer that Bright referred to in the beginning who warned him about the shortages. He runs Prestige Ameritech. They're one of the last American producers of N95 masks. And he came to Bright's defense.

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MIKE BOWEN: I'm a Republican. I voted for President Trump. And I admire Dr. Bright. I don't know what he did in all of his other activities, but I think everything I've heard and every time I've talked to him and everything he said here made a lot of sense. And I believe him.

DAVIS: You know, Bright is alleging that the Trump administration ignored warnings about mask shortages and his request back in January that they needed to scale up. And Bowen's testimony largely backed up that allegation, and he testified in rather compelling ways about how he has worked for the - more than the past decade to try to get the government to pay attention to our mask supplies. I'd also note that Bowen did say he voted for Trump, but he did make a point to note that he is supporting Joe Biden now.

CHANG: All right. Allison, back to you. What more did Rick Bright share with lawmakers as he was urging for more masks?

AUBREY: You know, overall, I'd say he painted a picture of many missed opportunities to procure masks early on and to the poor quality of some of the masks being imported, which he says have led to health care workers getting sick. He said at the beginning of January, he started to get signals about shortages. He heard from industry colleagues that the supply chain was diminishing rapidly, that other countries were starting to block exports. So he urged the higher ups within the administration to get more masks. But he says he got pushback. People didn't share his urgency, said there was not a shortage. And he says at a February 7 meeting with his department leadership, this is what he heard.

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BRIGHT: They indicated if we notice there is a shortage, that we will simply change the CDC guidelines to better inform people who should not be wearing those masks so that would save those masks for our health care workers. My response was, I cannot believe you can sit and say that with a straight face. It was absurd.

AUBREY: And Bright moved on from the mask issue to say that he continues to be concerned about the administration's response. He warned of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases come this fall. And he called for a stepped-up federal plan to control it.

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BRIGHT: Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history.

CHANG: The darkest winter in modern history. All right. I just want to shift gears a little now and talk about the economy. You know, this pandemic continues to take an economic toll. Another 3 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. There's been almost 37 million jobless claims in just the last eight weeks. So, Sue, are these numbers changing the calculation for lawmakers as they're trying to pass more rescue packages?

DAVIS: There is an increasing growing divide on the Hill between the two parties about what needs to be done. And Democrats are moving forward tomorrow with another $3 trillion rescue package, but they're really talking to themselves. There's been no communication with the White House. Senate Republicans say they don't want to take it up, and Pelosi told reporters today she's basically relying on public opinion to bend in their favor.

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NANCY PELOSI: I think that our conversation is with the American people. They're feeling the pain more than anyone, obviously, who are saying something like that. It's amazing to me how much patience and how much tolerance some can have for the pain of others.

DAVIS: Pelosi basically saying Republicans will likely have no choice but to support legislation along the lines they're offering.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis and science correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thanks to both of you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.