Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told Congress Thursday that the Department of Health and Human Services ignored warnings about a supply shortage of personal protective equipment in the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bright testified that emails from Mike Bowen, head of Prestige Ameritech, a major surgical mask supplier, warned of impending shortages but went ignored.

“I’ll never forget the emails I received from Mike Bowen indicating that our mask supply, our N-95 respirator supply was completely decimated,” Bright said. “And he said, ‘We’re in deep shit. The world is.’”

According to Bright’s whistleblower complaint, he first began warning HHS officials of coronavirus-related concerns towards the end of January.

He suggested a meeting on Jan. 23, saying that coronavirus may already be in the U.S. and that he would need additional funding to stop its spread. The same day, a HHS spokesperson said the coronavirus was ruled a low threat to the U.S. by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The complaint says that HHS official Bryan Shuy “later told Dr. Bright that his request for urgent funding at the meeting on January 23[rd] set off ‘quite a shit storm’ after the meeting.'”

“Mr. Shuy further relayed to Dr. Bright he had offended HHS leadership by pushing for urgent funding…” the complaint reads. “According to Mr. Shuy, HHS leadership believed that BARDA already had a sizable budget, albeit nothing specifically for COVID-19, and that he should not have asked for additional resources to address the virus.”

Bright’s complaint alleges that Bowen continued to warn HHS officials that there were not enough masks to go around, but no action was taken.

“From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers,” Bright testified. “We were not taking action. We were already behind the ball.”

During Bowen’s testimony, he was questioned by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), who referenced a Jan. 31 email in which he said he would sell masks to the federal government “if and only if the VA and DoD become my customers after this thing is over.”

Bowen replied that scaling production would require onboarding new employees, and he did not want to fire them once the demand was met.

Bright warned Thursday that the U.S. could face its “darkest winter in modern history” due to missteps in handling the virus outbreak.

“The window is closing to address this pandemic because we still do not have a standard centralized coordinated plan to take this nation through this response,” he said.


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