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Ousted health official warns US needs national plan to beat coronavirus

Rick Bright, a former top federal vaccine doctor, warned Congress that the country faces the "darkest winter in modern history" without a national coordinated response in place before next fall.

“If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities,” Bright told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.

Speaking slowly and softly, Bright testified for nearly four hours. He told lawmakers that Americans "deserve" to hear the truth.

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"The truth must be based on science. 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,” Bright said.

Bright also warned that it might take longer for the world to develop an effective vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, underscoring the need for a national plan. 

“My concern is if we rush too quickly and consider cutting out critical steps, we may not have a full assessment of the safety of that vaccine,” he said. "I still think 12 to 18 months is an aggressive schedule and it’s going to take longer than that to do so.”

And Bright repeated criticism he's made that officials in the Trump administration ignored his warnings about the coming crisis and the need to get supplies such as masks and other personal protective equipment for health care workers prepared. 

Bright led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) until he was demoted in late April and transferred to a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health.

Lawmakers in the hearing room with Bright were mostly wearing face masks and sitting at least six feet away from each other. Many noted that Bright was a familiar face, having testified before the committee multiple times in years past in his capacity as BARDA director. 

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The hearing comes just a little over a week after Bright filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that his refusal to broadly promote an anti-malaria drug to treat COVID-19 directly resulted in his ouster from the agency.

The independent Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is investigating his removal, and last week found "reasonable grounds to believe" that the administration retaliated against Bright. The office recommended Bright be temporarily reinstated until the investigation ends.

Minutes after Bright began his testimony, the Department of Health and Human Services sent out a lengthy fact sheet contrasting Bright's allegations with "reality." The agency compared and contrasted nearly 20 separate allegations contained in Bright's whistleblower complaint.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE also attacked Bright as a "disgruntled employee."

"Mr. Bright has not yet shown up for work, but continues to collect his $285,010 salary, while using his taxpayer-funded medical leave to work with partisan attorneys who are politicizing the response to COVID-19," the agency said in a statement. "His whistleblower complaint is filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation. HHS is reviewing the complaint and strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations made by Rick Bright."

Bright had been on medical leave due to hypertension related to his "current situation," according to his spokesperson. 

In a statement sent after the hearing, Bright's attorneys said he has been his health has improved, and that he will return to work at the NIH next week.

"Contrary to administration talking points, Dr. Bright has never refused to report to NIH, and now that his position there has been identified, he plans to begin next week," his attorneys said. "Dr. Bright is fully prepared to step into this new role unless Secretary Azar honors OSC’s request and grants a stay of his reassignment.”

Under questioning from lawmakers, Bright repeatedly said the federal government needs to lead the coronavirus response. Without a coordinated plan and a designated agency in charge, the shortages of much needed supplies that have plagued the response effort will continue.

“We don’t have a single point of leadership right now for this response, and we don’t have a master plan for this response,” Bright said.

Bright added that he doesn't think it's too late for the U.S. to improve its response and prevent the pandemic from worsening.

“I believe with proper leadership and collaboration across government, with the best science leading the way, we can devise a comprehensive strategy, we can devise a plan that includes all Americans and help them help us guide us through this pandemic,” Bright said.

Updated at 5:22 p.m.