May 8, 2020 at 10:19 p.m. GMT+2
THE UNITED STATES pumped some $50 billion into the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, founded in the aftermath of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, to prepare for and stockpile medical countermeasures to a biological emergency, natural or man-made. When the emergency came, however, the Trump administration foundered.
The former director of BARDA, Rick Bright, has made public a whistleblower complaint that depicts confusion and ineptitude at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees BARDA. He says senior officials repeatedly failed to anticipate the supply-chain problems that would engulf the United States while at the same time pressing for mass distribution of drugs lacking scientific evidence. Mr. Bright charges that he was wrongly forced out and wants to be reinstated. The federal Office of Special Counsel has found “reasonable grounds to believe” the administration was retaliating against him and recommended he be reinstated while it investigates.
Mr. Bright, a PhD in immunology and virology, became BARDA director in 2016. He describes frequent tension with his bosses over what he perceived as conflicts of interest and political pressures in negotiations to purchase vaccines, drugs and other therapies from private companies.
When reports of a novel coronavirus emerged from China in January, Mr. Bright says he urged superiors “to move quickly, hire more personnel, secure funding and obtain viruses to get started on medical countermeasures.” He pushed to convene the department’s high-level “Disaster Leadership Group.” But one superior wrote back questioning “if that is a time sensitive urgency.” Mr. Bright says he repeatedly warned of a shortage of N95 respirators to protect health-care workers, but his alarms were brushed off. In February, Mr. Bright took his concerns to President Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro, who was sympathetic. When Mr. Navarro requested more information from HHS, he got a slide deck that, according to Mr. Bright, declared, “There are no known immediate problems with supply chains.” Mr. Bright also raised alarms about a potentially crippling shortage of syringes and needles for a vaccine, and shortages of diagnostic test kits and swabs.
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