Whistleblower says he warned US Health Dept about virus in January

Rick Bright alleges he was ousted because he resisted allowing widespread use of a malaria drug favoured by Trump. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: A whistleblower who says he was removed from his government post for raising concerns about coronavirus preparedness told a congressional hearing on Thursday that the United States could face “the darkest winter” of recent times if it does not improve its response to the pandemic.

Hours after President Donald Trump railed against him on Twitter, whistleblower Rick Bright testified to a US House of Representatives panel about readiness for the outbreak.

Bright was removed last month as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, which is responsible for developing drugs to fight the coronavirus.

“What we do must be done carefully with guidance from the best scientific minds. Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to improve our response now, based on science, I fear the pandemic will get worse and be prolonged,” Bright said.

Trump, who has been pushing for the US economy to reopen quickly, dismissed Bright as a “disgruntled employee” on Twitter on Thursday morning before the hearing began.

He said he did not know Bright, who “with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!”

Earlier this week, leading US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci warned a Senate committee that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to additional outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus. Trump blocked Fauci from testifying to the Democratic-controlled House.

In a whistleblower complaint filed with a government watchdog last week, Bright said that he warned about the virus in January and was met with hostility from leaders of the US Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees BARDA.

Bright, who was reassigned to a new government job last month, said he was ousted from BARDA because he resisted efforts to push the drugs hydroxychloroquine and the related chloroquine as cures for Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

Bright said in the statement last month that the US government has promoted the medicines as a “panacea” even though they “clearly lack scientific merit.”

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley has disputed Bright’s account, saying in a statement on Tuesday that he was transferred to a job where he was entrusted to spend around US$1 billion to develop diagnostic testing.

“We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavour,” Oakley said.

The House subcommittee was also hearing on Thursday from Mike Bowen, co-owner of Prestige Ameritech, the largest US surgical mask producer.

Bowen warned in January that the United States would run out of medical-grade face masks if it did not ramp up production, according to emails included in Bright’s whistleblower complaint.