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Ousted Federal Vaccine Chief Testifies In Whistleblower Hearing. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 14, 2020 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:30:00]

REP. JOE KENNEDY III (D-MA): -- over your course of time either there or in your prior government service?

RICHARD BRIGHT, FORMER DIR, DHS' BIOMEDICAL ADVANCED RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT AUTH.: We responded to the Zika outbreak. We responded to the bola outbreak. They didn't rise to the level of pandemic.

KENNEDY III: Of course, right. Thank you for the clarification.

Sir, you're aware at the end of the Obama administration, the Obama team put together a playbook to try to guide succeeding administrations and how to handle an outbreak, correct?

BRIGHT: Yes.

KENNEDY III: Sir, you're also aware that there's a simulation done from an outgoing Obama administration in early 20 -- in January 2017, with an incoming administration about how to respond to a pandemic, is that right?

BRIGHT: Yes.

KENNEDY III: And you're aware that the Trump administration cut the number of CDC staff located in China from 47 to 14, is that right?

BRIGHT: I don't know the exact number. I know that was reduced.

KENNEDY III: OK. And Sir, you referenced already the simulation called Crimson Contagion. That was a simulation done by HHS and begun in January of 2019. Can you shine just very briefly a little bit of light as to what the findings of Crimson Contagion were?

BRIGHT: The significant findings, it was actually participants who were beyond HHS who covered broad areas of government in federal, state, and locals. Some of the significant findings were the need for improved coordination and communication and alignment between the federal and state, local, tribal, territorial governments, and the significant need for protective -- personal protective equipment and this shortage and a significant need for funding initially.

KENNEDY III: And Sir, that simulation was based off of a flu-like virus that was initially detected in China spread by global air travel and resulted in the infection of 110 million Americans leaving to 7.7 million hospitalized and nearly 600,000 dead, is that right?

BRIGHT: Yes.

KENNEDY III: Sir, are you -- when did you first have concerns about the potential impact of COVID-19 on the United States?

BRIGHT: In early January.

KENNEDY III: And were you aware that your supervisor Dr. Kadlec suggested that the activation of the Defense Production Act in mid January?

BRIGHT: I wasn't aware of him doing that, no.

KENNEDY III: OK. Well, you mentioned that you were had two meetings with Secretary Azar, I'm sure you had others. But you referenced so far in your testimony meetings on January 23rd and 27th, where you raise concerns directly to the secretary, is that right?

BRIGHT: Yes. And the secretary was not at the second meeting, Deputy Secretary Hargan was there.

KENNEDY III: Thank you. You're aware the top National Security Council staff, including National Security Council -- National Security Adviser, Mr. O'Brien and his deputy Matthew Pottinger, raised significant warnings that China was downplaying the impacts of this virus?

BRIGHT: I did learn that in the meeting at the White House, yes.

KENNEDY III: You're aware that we sent 17.8 tons of medical supplies to China in early February?

BRIGHT: I've learned of that.

KENNEDY III: Are you aware that the Trump administration budget proposal released in February of 2020 called for a cut to CDC by nearly $700 million?

BRIGHT: I'm not aware of that. I've heard of it.

KENNEDY III: Are you familiar with a memo written by Peter Navarro that warned of the impact of the virus?

BRIGHT: Yes.

KENNEDY III: Are you aware that it was spread among senior administration and White House officials?

BRIGHT: Yes.

KENNEDY III: Are you aware that it was on or about April 2nd when the Trump administration finally activated and expanded the Defense Production Act months after being warned by you and other senior administration officials?

BRIGHT: I've learned of that.

KENNEDY III: Are you aware that that order itself did not extend to the full authority of the DPA and less haphazard allocation process to states and hospitals to compete against each other?

BRIGHT: I don't know the details of that authority, Sir.

KENNEDY III: Are the Coronavirus Task Force actually developed a plan for reopening the country?

BRIGHT: I'm not aware of the full plan to reopen, Sir.

KENNEDY III: Have developed some principles that the White House has touted as some principles or guidelines as to reopen -- how to reopen the country?

BRIGHT: I've heard there's some principles.

KENNEDY III: Are states following that plan?

BRIGHT: It doesn't appear that there is a nationwide coordinated plan that states are following, Sir.

KENNEDY III: So after this recitation of the actions and action of this administration over the course of the past six months or so, can we possibly say that this administration has prepared our country for what at the moment that we are in and how we could possibly be prepared for the distribution development, manufacturing, and distribution of a vaccine to try to address 330 million Americans over the course of the months ahead?

BRIGHT: I think we have a lot of work to do to be prepared, Sir, working to be fully prepared.

KENNEDY III: Thank you, Sir. I yield back.

REP. ANNA ESHOO (D), CHAIRWOMAN, ENERGY & COMMERCE CMTE'S HEALTH SUBCOMMITTEE: Gentleman yields back. Pleasure to recognize the gentleman from Missouri, Mr. Long, for his five minutes of questions. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We can go to Cardenas.

ESHOO: So we go to -- you want to pass?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think I'm going to reserve, yes.

ESHOO: OK. You can reserve and we'll go to the gentleman from California Mr. Cardenas for his five minutes of questions.

[12:35:04]

REP. TONY CARDENAS (D-CA): OK. Thank you, Dr. Bright for being here today and I just want to tell you that my family, my community, and myself, we appreciate your 25 years of focused service, specifically when it comes to addressing pandemic outbreaks. And it's my understanding that you've spent those 25 years leading teams of scientists when it comes to drugs, diagnostics, and vaccine development. And we appreciate that.

You -- when an administration or decision makers prioritize politics over science, does that tend to increase or decrease the likely result of the loss of life in the middle of a pandemic?

BRIGHT: I believe the scientists are best equipped to understand how to manage a public health crisis, I believe sciences should lead.

CARDENAS: And therefore, to my question, again, I'll phrase it differently. If the scientists are not leading, and the politicians are leading with the final decisions, when trying to address the issues of pandemics that are taking people's lives, that way of handling it, does that likely increase the loss of life? Or is it likely to decrease the loss of life?

BRIGHT: I believe as a scientist leading will actually increase the likelihood that we can survive this pandemic and move through it. So if scientists are not allowed to lead and speak up, I believe it could increase the loss of lives.

CARDENAS: Thank you. How many times in your career have you personally actively said, I need to enact my right to be a whistleblower?

BRIGHT: I'm sorry, could you repeat that?

CARDENAS: How many times in the last 25 years have you decided to enact your right to be a whistleblower?

BRIGHT: This is my first time, Sir.

CARDENAS: OK. I just -- well, I knew that answer was simple and I think I'm confused because I made it so simple. And the reason why I want to say that is because I believe that you've been incredibly consistent in your willingness to dedicate yourself, your expertise, and your career to saving lives. Is the loss of life on your mind? Was that on your mind when you decided that you needed to enact your right to be a whistleblower?

BRIGHT: The -- I've spent my career to focus on saving lives. And Sir, everything I've done does come forward now is to raise awareness of challenges we have. Things that are not getting done, because I do think it will save more lives.

CARDENAS: OK. Are you aware of the fact that the lack of testing in the United States of America is affected by many pieces of the puzzle in order for people to get testing, whether it's swabs, whether it's N95 rated equipment for the caregivers, to be able to enact safely with the public, are those all factors that have contributed to our lack of having adequate testing in America?

BRIGHT: They are factors, Sir. I don't think anyone has thought through the entire plan completely to understand those critical components for testing. I think there's a lot of confusion about the different types of tests. And I think our national narrative is focused on a number of tests and it's not about the numbers so much as the right types of tests and Americans know how to use them and what to do with that information. And no one has really thought through the raw material supply chain to make sure we can sustain the need to test.

CARDENAS: OK. Your -- that sounds a little confusing from somebody who actually has been working at a high level of the United States government in this space that we're discussing at this moment.

So my question is, if we're not implementing in this pandemic to the degree or ability that the United States should or could, what's contributed the most to that? Was it the lack of scientists recommending up the chain of command or was it the people at the top of the chain of command, deciding to do things differently than the scientists are strongly recommending?

BRIGHT: There's evidence of scientists raising concerns about shortages and other actions that are important to take that we're not being taken. It's a different level. And my personal situation is the leadership at HHS and I asked her Dr. Kadlec that I believe was dismissive at the early warnings that I was raising.

CARDENAS: OK. And you said early warnings and despite the early warnings have there have been other examples where warnings and strong recommendations were either being ignored or set aside and other actions were taken.

[12:40:04]

BRIGHT: Sir, I believe that I've learned about others, I mean, the CDC has written several guidelines for reopening America and getting people out of their homes and back to work. And, and I'm not sure if all of those guidelines have been reviewed or being publicly considered at this point.

So there's another example of, I think, really hard working career scientists and their information and their hard work not probably getting the proper vetting and proper exposure to the American public.

CARDENAS: Well, one of the things, I have no idea how much time I have the clocks been flipping back and forth, but let me -- hopefully I have a little bit of time.

We've heard boasting from the White House about millions of personal protective equipment, PPEs as everybody knows them as, millions have gone out to American. But in fact, to date, we should have had billions gone out throughout America, isn't that the disparity?

BRIGHT: That's a huge disparity. And health care workers are having to compromise their protection and their health and safety because they're having to be creative and reuse a single mass for the entire week or come up with novel sterilization practices that are not proven or test it yet.

So that disparity actually is impacting our frontline workers. And those are the people whose lives we really need to preserve so they can treat others.

CARDENAS: I have family members who are working in hospitals today on the front lines who have been telling me that they are wearing equipment for days at a time that they're supposed to be disposing of several times a day.

ESHOO: Gentlemen's time is expired.

CARDENAS: And they're having to use it over and over so. Thank you very much, Madam Chairman. If somebody could do a better job

of the clock I'd appreciate it. It kept flipping back and forth, I was trying to --

ESHOO: You're absolutely right. It went from -- it got stuck at 4:44, it went to zero and popped up to 1:21. So I'm watching too. My father was a watchmaker, clock repair man, where is daddy when we need him?

A pleasure to recognize Mr. Long from Missouri for his five minutes of questions.

REP. BILLY LONG (R-MO): Thank you Madam Chairwoman. And Dr. Bright, you contend that your removal was because the Trump administration and HHH leadership in particular lacks scientific integrity? Do you think the Dr. Fauci lack scientific integrity?

BRIGHT: So I don't think my removal is anything associated with Dr. Fauci at all. I think my removal is because of tensions and actions I took between my advisor -- my supervisor, Dr. Kadlec and myself.

LONG: You know about Dr. Fauci's testimony two days before the Senate Health Committee?

BRIGHT: I'm aware of that testimony. Yes.

LONG: If HHH leadership is so hostile to scientific integrity as you say, as you allege, how do you explain Dr. Fauci been allowed to testify forthrightly to serve in a prominent role on the White House Task Force, the administration, and direct NIAIDs extensive research efforts?

BRIGHT: Sir, I'm not sure what decisions are involved in allowing Dr. Fauci to testify or not. That's not something.

LONG: Can you say that again?

BRIGHT: I'm not I'm not sure. I'm not aware of what process or decisions are involved in allowing Dr. Fauci to testify or not?

LONG: But he was allowed to testify.

BRIGHT: I know he was. But I thought I understood you to ask me if that was appropriate, if he was not being allowed to. Maybe you can repeat your question if I misunderstood it.

LONG: OK. What I'm saying is, you're saying HHS is hostile to scientific integrity. And if that's the case, can you explain why Dr. Fauci was allowed to testify forthrightly on the committee? If they're hostile to, why would you let him come out and testify without any no hold barred?

BRIGHT: I'm saying that my supervisor was not following proper scientific process that we have in place for BARDA. I'm not actually saying the administration is hostile against scientific integrity in all cases. So I'm saying in my particular situation, in my -- as in my claim, my supervisor was conducting inappropriate activity that was going around proper scientific vetting. That is, when I put --

LONG: And why did you not bring these concerns to Secretary Azar or his chief or the inspector general? Why did you not bring any of them into the loop say, hey, I have these concerns?

BRIGHT: So I believe some of the activities were not it's isolated with Dr. Kadlec. I think some of his senior staff was also aware of some of the processes that were being utilized to go around our traditional review process scientific review process.

LONG: But what normal protocol in any situation be that you go to the secretary of HHS or his chief of staff or the inspector general with their concern instead of just gathering them up and deciding that one day you're going to?

[12:45:14]

BRIGHT: Well, I didn't decide that. I was pushed out, Sir. And involuntarily transfer without my knowledge --

LONG: But you have these concerns. So why didn't you take them to your superior when you had the concerns. And maybe none of this, maybe we wouldn't be here today. It wasn't easy for any of us to get here today.

BRIGHT: Sir, I requested an I.G. investigation, this is my claim. And it's -- I think it was in 2018 that they look into what I believe was inappropriate pressure, political pressure, on some of our contracting activities, and discussion about procurement integrity. And I do not think that that was ever followed through on. So I'd --

LONG: Did you bring your concerns to the inspector general?

BRIGHT: I do not believe they were follow that through and submitted to the inspector general. I raised us concerns to our HHS --

LONG: Are you -- talking inspector general, didn't raise the concerns with the inspector general or with Azar's chief or with Azar, correct?

BRIGHT: I raised those with the Secretary's Office of General Counsel. They were present in that meeting, Sir.

LONG: I'll take that as a no. OK. You state in your testimony that HHH leadership was dismissive about your predictions about the broader outbreak and the pressing need to act. However, it's my understanding that it was Dr. Redfield at CDC who alerted the White House's National Security Council about the risk of the virus on January the 2nd and high level team with the NSC's counter proliferation and bio defense directorate quickly began meeting to address the possibility of a pandemic. Do you consider Dr. Redfield actions here to be dismissive about the threat of a coronavirus?

BRIGHT: Sir, if people were aware of the urgency what was lacking was the action and how to address the urgency. So when we were raising issues on critical supply chain of medical equipment to protect doctors and nurses, if they're aware of the urgency of the situation and still failed to act, I think that is even more unconscionable and not being aware of the emergency and not acting.

LONG: OK. In your new position, I would recommend that if you have issues you might go to the head of the department, in chief and some folk like that. I yield back.

ESHOO: Gentleman yields back. Pleasure to yield to the gentleman from Vermont, Mr. Welch.

REP. PETER WELCH (D-VT): Thank you very much. Your job, our job is to protect the American people. And this fierce virus can be managed if done correctly, correct?

BRIGHT: I believe so.

WELCH: And in fact, the playbook is established. It's testing, contact tracing, and then isolation. Starting with first social isolation, correct?

BRIGHT: Yes. So there's non-pharmaceutical interventions and testing are critical first steps.

WELCH: Right. And in fact, this virus is across the world in many countries that have followed that tried and true protocol have done far better than the U.S., is that correct?

BRIGHT: We have seen differences in the response and the outcomes of that response around the world.

WELCH: I'll go through some of those. And, you know, the Johns Hopkins study that said that the U.S. had the best preparedness, it turned out we have the worst response, correct, with the most cases and the most deaths?

BRIGHT: We have the most cases and the most deaths.

WELCH: and I did some calculations, you know. On January 19th, South Korea determined its first case. On January 19th, the U.S. determined his first case, correct?

BRIGHT: January 20th was the U.S., yes.

WELCH: All right. And if we had the same response to South Korea, by population, they had 33,000 deaths that would have -- we would have saved 50,000 lives. In Taiwan, they had the same virus, 22,000 deaths. And again, adjusting for population at 60,000 more deaths we've had here, Singapore 82,000 more deaths, New Zealand 65,000. The question for us here and for the American people is why, when we had the best plan, we had the worst executions. So let me go through a few things that you've established. One, beginning in January before that first case here, FDA Chief Hahn asked the HHS if he could start contacting companies about possible shortage of protective equipment, and he got blown off by HHS, correct?

BRIGHT: That I understand.

WELCH: And on January 10th, before our first case, you push Dr. Kaldec to convene high level meetings about the virus, but that was initially rejected, correct?

[12:50:02]

BRIGHT: True.

WELCH: And then on January 23rd, you demanded urgent access to funding personnel and clinical specimens to develop life saving medicines. But you were told that the spread is under control, correct?

BRIGHT: There wasn't a shared sense of urgency.

WELCH: On January 25th, you warned others in the administration, there's a critical need for procuring surgical mask that was ignored, correct?

BRIGHT: True.

WELCH: On January 27th, you participated in the daily COVID-19 meeting where you express frustration with the slow pace of accessing virus samples and clinical specimens from China. You were reprimanded, and you're no longer part of those meetings, is that right?

BRIGHT: That's true.

WELCH: So you and others actually, were seeing over the horizon what was coming to our shores even before our first case was confirmed, correct?

BRIGHT: We had spent many years preparing for pandemic, Sir. And we understood the threat and we understood what we needed to do.

WELCH: Exactly. It's knowable and it's manageable. It's fierce and fearsome. But what you have to do is establish. Is that more or less correct?

BRIGHT: Yes, Sir.

WELCH: We just didn't do it. On February 25th, President Trump gave an assurance that the stock market is starting to look very good and the coronavirus was very much under control. Were you aware of any medically involved people who had the view that the virus at that time was very much under control?

BRIGHT: No, Sir. I don't think the virus was under control. I don't think many people would agree with me in the scientific realm.

WELCH: Now, in those countries I mentioned, it includes Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, the leaders of those countries accepted that there was a role only the nation could play and the provinces would have to depend on them for that. And I'm going to go through some of those things. One, establishing a press -- a testing protocol, was that done here?

BRIGHT: No.

WELCH: Two, acquiring and allocating and distributing personal protective equipment to where it was needed, when it was needed, was that done here?

BRIGHT: No, Sir.

WELCH: In fact, we had governors and hospitals competing with each other to try to get desperately needed equipment, isn't that correct?

BRIGHT: There's a lot of confusion, a lot of competition, and bad decisions made to acquire poor quality product.

WELCH: In any of those other countries that I just mentioned, are you aware of the leader of that country at a press conference, making recommendations on what kind of medication people should use?

BRIGHT: I don't know the details of what happened to those countries, Sir. So I don't know.

WELCH: All right. We had governors here, Republicans and Democrats, Republicans like Hogan, like Phil Scott from Vermont, who have done a tremendous job. But no matter how good they do their job, can they protect their people without the aggressive intervention of the federal government playing his role?

BRIGHT: I think the federal government plays a critical role in coordinating and aligning and making an equitable distribution of those critical supplies. I believe that's what we'd practice and exercise in the past that there would be a critical role for the federal lead in coordination to state, local, and tribal, and territorial levels.

WELCH: Thank you, Dr. Bright. I yield back.

ESHOO: gentleman yields back. Pleasure to recognize the gentleman from Georgia, Mr. Carter, do you wish to question or do you want to pass? Your reserve, OK. The gentleman from California, Mr. Ruiz is recognized for five minutes of questions. Dr. Ruiz.

REP. RAUL RUIZ (D-CA): Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Bright. Thank you for your testimony here. And thank you for your service to our country. My heart aches for the family and friends of the over 80,000 in America who have died of COVID-19 in such a short period of time. In fact, my heart aches for those closer to me, the riverside counties reported 228 deaths. As a doctor, I appreciate your written testimony that states that science, not politics or cronyism must lead the way to combat this deadly virus. There has been a lot of hype about cures for COVID that have been shown to be ineffective and even dangerous. We are now seeing the very real dangers and consequences of not making decisions based on science. Hydroxychloroquine, which Fox News commentators and then the White House repeatedly touted and actually encouraged people to use is exhibit A on this list.

But there is one drug that appears to provide some therapeutic benefit, Remdesivir. Two weeks ago Dr. Fauci announced that Remdesivir showed a clear cut significant positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery.

[12:55:07]

My understanding is that in January and early February, you launched a comprehensive review to assess which existing drugs may prove a therapeutic benefit and you quickly identified Remdesivir as the most likely drug to be effective against COVID-19. Can you describe how you came to that conclusion? Who you told within HHS and what their response was?

BRIGHT: Yes, Sir. That conclusion was came about by a technical review from number of scientists within HHS to the CDC, FDA, NIH, and BARDA. But it was also aligned with the scientific assessment from WHO and a number of global experts, who rapidly looked at every potential drug and ranked Remdesivir as the drug that had the most potential for benefit.

RUIZ: Who did you tell and what was the response?

BRIGHT: And we share that information with Dr. Kadlec. We share that information within HHS leadership as well. We had discussions about the actions that could be considered for acquiring the limited supply of Remdesivir.

RUIZ: So what was the response?

BRIGHT: And we had discussions about how to ramp up production of more Remdesivir in case the randomized control clinical study that the NIH was conducting came through with positive.

RUIZ: And so you had a discussion and what was their response? Did anything happen?

BRIGHT: No decision was made at that time.

RUIZ: OK. My understanding is that Peter Navarro, the White House trade advisor reached out to you on February 7th to seek your counsel. You told him about your top three concerns, the shortage of N95 masks, the need for a, quote unquote, Manhattan project to develop vaccines and securing adequate supplies of Remdesivir. Can you tell us if Mr. Navarro agreed with you and what steps you and he took? BRIGHT: Mr. Navarro did agree with me on the Remdesivir, with the N95 masks, and the vaccine, Manhattan project. And he drafted a memo on February 9th to the White House Chief of Staff and Mick Mulvaney to share with the White House Taskforce.

RUIZ: The director for HHS to act on Remdesivir occurred on February 10th. What happened next? And did the department promptly procure the needed supplies of Remdesivir?

BRIGHT: We did not proceed with procuring any supplies of Remdesivir.

RUIZ: OK. You were removed from your position on April 22nd. By time you were removed, had the department settled on a plan and procured the Remdesivir?

BRIGHT: No, sir. They were still discussing --

RUIZ: So --

BRIGHT: -- slide presentations about potential donations of Remdesivir at that time.

RUIZ: So what you are describing is the gang that couldn't choose straight and yet we are in the middle of a pandemic. There is one drug the experts say could make a difference and in fact has been shown to make a difference. Yet the department can't seem to figure out how to acquire it. We'll go to the Washington Post published an article on the rollout of the Remdesivir describing it as, quote, confusing, unfair, and marred with incomplete medical information unquote.

Doctors describe how they can obtain the drug and don't understand the process for accessing it. Dr. Benjamin Linas from the Boston Medical Center said, quote, there's no transparency. The process is just a staggering injustice. Dr. Bright, you were warning about this over three months ago if the department had listened to you and the other experts at your agency, could this fiasco have been avoided?

BRIGHT: We would have had a plan, Sir. We should have had a plan for that drug and any other drug and limited supply.

RUIZ: So it didn't have to be this way.

BRIGHT: Right.

RUIZ: Here's what I don't understand. You were right about the dangers of hydroxychloroquine. You were right about the benefits of Remdesivir. You were right about N95 masks and other critical issues. Yet you got fired from your job, while officials who botched the response and ignored your warnings stay in there's. Not only is this unfair to you, it's completely dangerous to the American people. I yield back my time.

ESHOO: The gentleman yields back. I'd like to clarify something just very quickly. Relative to your leave, Dr. Bright, are you on accrued vacation time now?

BRIGHT: I'm sorry?

ESHOO: Are you on accrued vacation time now?

BRIGHT: I'm on approved vacation leave today. Yes, I've talked to that.

ESHOO: And you -- would you be willing to share the exhibits once you personally -- once you remove personally identifiable information?

BRIGHT: I'm sorry. I'm having trouble understanding you through --

ESHOO: Oh, I'm sorry.

BRIGHT: Sorry.

ESHOO: I'm getting so comfortable wearing a mask. I forgot I had it on. Would you be willing to share the other exhibits once you remove personally identifiable information?

BRIGHT: Yes.

ESHOO: Thank you. All right --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gentlemen, we will make them available this after the hearing today when we've had a chance to review it.

ESHOO: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Madam Chair, will they be made available to the minority as well as the majority?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Absolutely.

ESHOO: We made available to the entire committee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Perfect. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've never shared anything with the majority that hasn't been shared. This is a bipartisan issue.

[13:00:02]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Madam Chair. If there's anything that is exhibits that hasn't already been released to the public that might be degrading, will that be kept in confidence amongst --