Time is running out to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, which could face the "darkest winter in modern history" without a nationally coordinated response in place, a whistleblower and former top federal vaccine doctor told a congressional panel Thursday.
"Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to improve our response now, based on science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged. There will be likely a resurgence of COVID-19 this fall that will be greatly compounded by the challenges of seasonal influenza," said Rick Bright, former chief of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
BARDA, under the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is responsible for developing drugs to fight the coronavirus.
"We need still a comprehensive plan, and everyone across the government and everyone in America needs to know what that plan is, and what role they play," he told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.
"Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history," he said.
The hearing came after Bright filed a whistleblower complaint last week saying that he was removed as BARDA director last month for raising concerns about coronavirus preparedness. Bright said he warned about the virus in January and was met with hostility from HHS, according to US media reports.
Bright, who was reassigned to a new government job last month, highlighted the role of science in the fight against the pandemic.
"We have the world's greatest scientists. Let us lead. Let us speak without fear of retribution. We must listen. Each of us can and must do our part now," he said.
He called a timeline of 12 to 18 months for the creation of a vaccine against the coronavirus "an aggressive schedule".
"A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12-to-18-month time frame," Bright said. "If everything goes perfectly – we've never seen everything go perfectly.
"We don't have (a vaccine plan) yet, and it is a significant concern," Bright said. Asked if lawmakers should be worried, he said, "absolutely".
At the hearing, Bright recalled getting emails in late January from Mark Bowen, executive vice-president of Prestige Ameritech in Texas, who warned him that the supply of the country's N95 masks was "completely decimated".
"He said 'We are in deep sh--. The world is. We need to act,'" Bright said, adding that he had pushed that forward to the highest level that he could of HHS but got no response.
"From that moment I knew that we were going to have a crisis for healthcare workers, because we were not taking action, we were already behind the ball," he told lawmakers. "That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production to save the lives of those healthcare workers, and we didn't act."
US Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, said, "Listening to your testimony gives me chills because it all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: It didn't have to be this way. There was another path things could have gone differently, the federal response to the pandemic could have been much more effective."
Markwayne Mullin, a Republican from Oklahoma, railed against Bright for continuing to collect his salary while on sick leave for hypertension.
"You're too sick to go into work, but you're well enough to come here while you are still getting paid," said Mullin. "I just have a hard time tracking that."
Bowen, who said he has had regular email exchanges with health authorities, said at the witness table that he is a Republican who voted for Trump but admired Bright.
"Every time I have talked to him, and everything he said here today has made a lot of sense, and I believe him," Bowen said.
But Bright's boss Alex Azar, secretary of HHS, refuted his testimony, saying his allegations "do not hold water".
"Everything he is complaining about was achieved. Everything he talked about was done," Azar said on the White House lawn before President Donald Trump left for a trip to a medical-equipment distributor in Pennsylvania.
"He says he talked about the need for respirators. We procured respirators under the president's direction. He said we need a Manhattan Project for vaccines. This president initiates a vaccine Manhattan Project, diagnostic Manhattan Project, therapeutic Manhattan Project," Azar said.
Earlier Thursday before the hearing started, Trump tweeted that he didn't know "the so-called Whistleblower", and that Bright was "a disgruntled employee".
Later Thursday in Pennsylvania, the president announced plans to replenish the US strategic stockpile of medical equipment depleted by the coronavirus outbreak.
"My goal is to produce everything America needs for ourselves and then export to the world, and that includes medicines," he said.