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Ousted Scientist Says COVID-19 Pandemic Could Be Worse Than 1918 Spanish Flu

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rick Bright alleges that the White House would not listen to him. Today he testifies before a House committee that says it will. Bright used to run a top federal health agency. He says he warned about the pandemic early to no effect. He says he warned against unproven drugs that the president was promoting, and he says that's why the administration transferred him to a different job. NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin is covering this story.

Selena, good morning.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What has Bright already said?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, he filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel last week, and that details how, as director of BARDA, which is part of the federal health agency, he warned the Trump administration about the seriousness of the coronavirus. And he claims he pushed back against the White House's promotion of unproven COVID-19 treatments like hydroxychloroquine and that the administration put what he called cronyism over science. He was transferred, he says, against his will to the National Institutes of Health last month.

Now, President Trump has dismissed the allegations and painted Bright as a disgruntled employee. But late last week, Bright's lawyers said the Office of Special Counsel said there seemed to be reasonable grounds to believe he was retaliated against and that it recommended he be reinstated while his complaint is investigated.

INSKEEP: OK. So there's a complaint now that involves both Bright and this other person, a man named Bowen, who is testifying today as well. Right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So the other witness today is Mike Bowen. He's a businessman with a Texas-based face mask company called Prestige Ameritech. And both witnesses submitted written testimony to lawmakers. Bowen's statement outlines how, for years, he tried to get the federal government to engage with his company and other domestic mask-makers, arguing it was a national security issue and in a pandemic, like we are in now, it would be hard to get the needed supplies. He told NPR last month that no one took his warnings seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIKE BOWEN: Everybody ignored it. I mean, the reporters ignored it. The pandemic experts ignored it. Our government ignored it. Hospitals ignored it. Everybody ignored it. I don't want to say I told you so. I just want to help everybody.

INSKEEP: Although it is an opportunity for both Bowen and Bright to say I told you so, in a way.

OK, so that's Bowen. What is Bright likely to say?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Rick Bright also submitted a written testimony to lawmakers, and he emphasizes he's a scientist and civil servant and that pandemic preparedness is his expertise. And the fact that his warnings went unheeded clearly pains him. Here he is on CBS' "60 Minutes" last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

RICK BRIGHT: We see too many doctors and nurses now dying. And I was thinking that we could have done more to get those masks and those supplies to them sooner. And if we had, would they still be alive today?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For today's appearance, though, Bright writes that he wants to be forward-looking. So he talks about the need for a clear voice from the federal government that is consistent and truthful even when that truth is difficult. And he says the truth is really difficult. He writes the coronavirus pandemic could be worse than the 1918 flu, which claimed over 50 million lives. And he says the window is closing to prevent things from being worse in the fall, writing, quote, "Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history."

INSKEEP: Wow. Very briefly, what's the agenda of the lawmakers who will question him?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, anytime a whistleblower comes to testify before Congress, it's going to be political. Bright is a witness Democratic lawmakers want to hear from, and they hold the majority in the House. One thing to watch for is how Republicans on the committee engage with Bright and whether or not they use this as a platform to defend the president.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.