WASHINGTON — It may have been Rick Bright’s best day in two months.
The ousted vaccine expert, fired from his post atop the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in April, was called to testify before Congress about the whistleblower complaint he recently filed against the Trump administration. And in more than three hours of grilling, Bright calmly denounced the Trump administration and deftly parried attacks from Republicans, leaving him looking like the even-keeled scientist his allies insist he is.
It could have been much worse: Since he came forward, Trump officials and allies have worked to cast doubt on Bright and his allegations. Earlier on Thursday, President Trump denounced him as “disgruntled,” and the health department implied in a statement he was a grifter and a liar. An agency statement said Bright’s visibility into the Trump administration’s response was limited and his concerns were thus overblown, and that he did not raise his complaints through the proper channels.
His tenure at BARDA more broadly was also not without controversy; drug companies complained about the agency’s work under Bright, and earlier this week, Politico reported that some staffers who worked under Bright had raised concerns about his leadership style, with one formal complaint even referring to “abuse.” Those factors could call into question Bright’s claims that he was ousted solely due to his whistleblowing over the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.
The hearing, for the most part, focused on Bright’s account of the Trump administration’s delays and failures in the early days of the U.S. coronavirus response. His opening statement focused on his predictions that “without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history.” He reiterated his concerns, too, about the unproven Covid-19 treatment, hydroxychloroquine.
Republicans, for their part, repeatedly implied Bright was telling a one-sided story. Their evidence: the suggestion that Bright had intentionally left noteworthy emails out of his whistleblower complaint. The Department of Health and Human Services has insisted Bright had initially praised hydroxychloroquine, and one former Trump official has suggested to STAT that Bright did so in an email that has not yet been made public. Republicans also insisted that if Bright had concerns with HHS leadership, he should have taken the highly unusual step of raising them directly with Capitol Hill.
Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) was among the first to directly challenge Bright’s claim that the Trump administration was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic. She came armed with specific examples of supposed planning, like the existence of a government panel, the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE), that is tasked with planning for exactly these scenarios.
Bright had a striking response.
“Since 2017, we have largely disbanded, dismantled the PHEMCE organization. We have not had those interagency discussions for a number of years,” he said. “The partners and colleagues across government haven’t had those venues to even talk or coordinate for a number of years.”
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) came armed with perhaps the most head-scratching bit of evidence that he insisted disproved Bright’s claims: The fact that Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, was allowed to testify earlier this week before the Senate.
“If [HHS] leadership was so hostile to scientific integrity, as you alleged, how do you explain Dr. Fauci being allowed to testify forthrightly?” Long asked.
“I’m saying that my supervisor was not following proper scientific processes that we have in place for BARDA,” Bright replied. “I’m not actually saying the administration is hostile against scientific integrity in all cases.”
CNN has reported that the White House barred Fauci from testifying before the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats.
A number of the claims in Bright’s whistleblower complaint center around his alleged unwillingness to help the government green-light the widespread use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which has not been proven effective as a treatment for Covid-19. Since Bright’s ouster, the Food and Drug Administration has warned against using hydroxychloroquine in late April, though clinical trials thoroughly vetting the drug’s efficacy are still ongoing. Republicans at the hearing suggested Bright should never have opposed hydroxychloroquine in the first place. At least three GOP lawmakers cited anecdotal evidence about hydroxychloroquine’s success when they questioned Bright. Some claimed to have heard of cured patients; others minimized potentially deadly side effects.
Bright, each time, stuck to his message: He always believed hydroxychloroquine should be tested in trials and proven before anyone moved to roll it out widely.
“I’ve heard those anecdotal stories as well,” Bright told Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas). “It is very difficult to understand data from those types of observational studies or anecdotal stories. So, the drug might have some benefit in some populations but we won’t know that until we have that information from a truly randomized controlled clinical study.”
Republicans’ struggles to land a punch against Bright were all the more striking after HHS issued a veritable cheat sheet for lawmakers this morning, putting forth its best evidence for disproving a number of Bright’s claims.
HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo even took to responding in real time to many of Bright’s claims via Twitter. He tweeted more than 20 times during the hearing, even including Google Maps directions to Bright’s new office in a pointed tweet about Bright taking sick leave since he filed his whistleblower complaint.
The American people are paying Dr. Bright $285K a year and he cannot find his way to his new office on the 300-acre @NIH campus so widely known that millions of Washingtonians could direct him there to if only he would ask. But let me help: here it is. https://t.co/EZ52nV1RvR
— Michael R. Caputo (@SpoxHHS) May 14, 2020
Bright did, however, stumble on that point Thursday when questioned by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oka.) about his claims of having stress-induced hypertension.
“You say you have hypertension, but yet you were able to do these interviews, you were able to make the report, you were able to prepare for this hearing, yet you’re too sick to go into work … while you’re still getting paid from the United States government, is that correct?” Mullin asked.
“This has been very stressful,” Bright said.