Coronavirus whistle-blower tells Congress US lacks vaccine plan

Whistle-blower Rick Bright warned on Thursday that the United States lacks a plan to produce and fairly distribute a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. The nation could face “the darkest winter in modern history” unless leaders act decisively, he told a congressional panel.

Bright alleges he was removed from a high-level scientific post after warning the administration of US President Donald Trump to prepare for the pandemic.

Bright said, “We don’t have [a vaccine plan] yet, and it is a significant concern.” Asked if lawmakers should be worried, he responded, “absolutely”.

Bright, a vaccine expert who led a biodefence agency in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said the country needs a plan to establish a supply chain for producing tens of millions of doses of a vaccine, and then allocating and distributing them fairly. He said experience so far with an antiviral drug that has been found to benefit COVID-19 patients has not given him much confidence about distribution. Hospital pharmacies have reported problems getting limited supplies.

The White House has begun what it calls “Operation Warp Speed” to quickly produce, distribute and administer a vaccine once it becomes available.

Appearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Bright said one of his lowest moments came when his repeated efforts to jump-start US production of respirator masks went nowhere.

Bright recalled getting emails in late January from Mike Bowen, an executive at a medical supply company called Prestige Ameritech, indicating that our N95 mask supply was “completely decimated.”

“And he said, ‘We’re in deep s***. The world is. And we need to act,'” Bright said. “And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response. From that moment I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our healthcare workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball.”

Republican lawmakers on the panel for the most part were careful not to attack Bright directly. But Republican Representative Markwayne Mullin slammed Bright for continuing to collect his $285,000 salary while first on sick leave for a spike in blood pressure, and now on vacation as he tries to straighten out his work situation.

“You’re too sick to go into work, but you’re well enough to come here while getting paid,” said Mullin. “I have a hard time understanding that.”

‘Window closing’

A federal watchdog agency has found “reasonable grounds” that Bright was removed from his post as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after sounding the alarm at the HHS.

“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Bright said in his prepared testimony. “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.”

Bright’s testimony follows this week’s warning by Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, that a rushed lifting of store-closing and stay-at-home restrictions could “turn back the clock,” seeding more suffering and death and complicating efforts to get the economy rolling again.

Trump on Thursday dismissed Bright in a tweet as “a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!” It is a sentiment some of the president’s political allies have expressed about Fauci as well.

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