Rick Bright and the Pandemic Path Not Taken
Amy Davidson Sorkin, The New Yorker
Many Americans are replaying, in their minds, the steps they have taken and the choices they have made with regard to the coronavirus crisis, but perhaps few with such tragic force as Rick Bright, who testified in a House hearing on Thursday. Bright, who in April was transferred from his position as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, had caused a “commotion,” as one colleague put it, by urging more action at pandemic-planning meetings as far back as January and February. At the hearing, Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat of Maryland, who had a pewter-gray mask around his neck—the members lowered their masks when speaking or, in some cases, when seated—asked Bright to return to that period. “I am sure that there are specific conversations, e-mails, moments in time that you remember like they happened yesterday,” Sarbanes said. Could he recall any particularly haunting ones that had caused a “sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach?”
Bright answered by speaking about e-mails he’d received in late January from an American mask manufacturer who warned, “ ‘We’re in deep shit. The world is. And we need to act.’ ” He said, “And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in H.H.S., and got no response. From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis—our health-care workers—because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production, to save the lives of those health-care workers. And we didn’t act.”
Sarbanes observed that there was “one inescapable conclusion” to be drawn from Bright’s testimony: “It didn’t have to be that way. There was another path. Things could have gone differently.” It is, at this point—with more than eighty thousand people in the U.S. dead, and, for New Yorkers, the experience barely behind us of the days when the city’s health system was so overwhelmed that the dead couldn’t properly be dealt with—hard to say otherwise. Yet almost no one in the Trump Administration has said so, and certainly no one at Bright’s level. On May 5th, Bright filed a formal whistle-blower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, alleging that his removal and transfer to a less prominent role at the National Institutes of Health was a punishment for, among other things, his outspokenness on pandemic preparation. Whistle-blower complaints are often complicated; Bright’s, for example, includes disputes over what he saw as the politically motivated awarding of contracts, going back to 2017. Trump has dismissed him, on Twitter, as a “disgruntled employee,” which sounds like a fairly sane kind of employee to be in the context of this Administration. (Trump also said that he didn’t know Bright at all, but that he wasn’t “liked” and had the wrong “attitude.”) Last week, the Office of Special Counsel found that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that Bright had been retaliated against, and an inquiry is ongoing. In the hearing, Republican members repeatedly harped on what they viewed as his insufficient enthusiasm, while he was at barda, for hydroxychloroquine, a remedy promoted by Trump.
Someone had to say what Bright said. The course of the pandemic in this country could have been different; the United States failed, and it didn’t have to. “I believe that there were critical steps we did not take in time,” Bright noted. As a result, “lives were endangered and, I believe, lives were lost.” barda is supposed to be involved in pandemic preparation, and many of the questions that Bright asked—not just about masks but about testing supplies and plans for vaccines—remain unanswered. He said that many health workers are still forced to make do with inadequate or substandard equipment. To read his whistle-blower complaint is to become alarmed about, among many other things, whether the United States will even have the syringes it will need to administer a vaccine when there is one. Another worrisome sign, in terms of the future distribution of vaccines and treatments, Bright pointed out, is the confusion surrounding the allocation to hospitals of remdesivir, one of the few coronavirus treatments to show potential for at least reducing the length of hospital stays. There still doesn’t seem to be an overarching strategic plan for dealing with the pandemic. As a result, Bright said, we have increased the possibility that a second wave in the fall could culminate in the “darkest winter in American history.” But the corollary, again, is that it doesn’t have to be that way.
One of the themes of Bright’s testimony was the importance of being honest with the public. Representative Nanette Barragán, a Democrat of California, quoted several of Trump’s dismissive comments about the pandemic (January 24th: “it will all work out well”; March 10th: “It will go away”) and asked about the consequence of such statements. “We did not forewarn people,” Bright replied. “We did not educate them on social distancing and wearing a mask, as we should have in January and February.” That was also a lost opportunity to save lives, and was intertwined with other failures. For example, Bright said, in both his testimony and his complaint, that one of the answers he received from other officials to his early warnings about mask supplies was that they hadn’t run out yet, and, if it ended up that they did face a shortage, they could just change the C.D.C. guidelines and tell people who “don’t need” masks not to buy or wear them. He had replied that he could not believe they had said that “with a straight face.” Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised. There are undoubtedly many opportunities, while in the Trump Administration, to become accustomed to trying to cover incompetence with misdirection and dishonesty. (Atul Gawande wrote this week that a review of research “suggests that if at least sixty per cent of the population wore masks that were just sixty-per-cent effective in blocking viral transmission—which a well-fitting, two-layer cotton mask is—the epidemic could be stopped.”)
In another series of questions, the Democratic congresswoman Doris Matsui, also of California, asked Bright if various failures to heed warnings would “ultimately shorten or lengthen the time it takes for our country to safely reopen and recover from the coronavirus pandemic.” She listed several: the slow start on vaccines, the delay in allocating resources, the failure of coördination. Yes, Bright said—it all meant that it would take longer to safely reopen. But, speaking about the shortage of masks, and what that had meant, he added another point: “No time to reopen our country will bring those people back to us.” In the middle of a pandemic, looking forward can also mean looking backward.