A Trump administration official who formerly headed an agency involved in COVID-19 vaccine development testified before Congress on Thursday that the administration's delay in requiring companies to produce N95 masks may have endangered healthcare workers.
"I believe lives were in danger, and I believe lives were lost," said Rick Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advance Research and Development Authority. Bright on May 5 filed a whistleblower complaint claiming his reassignment to a job at the National Institutes of Health was retaliatory.
The Trump administration did not send officials to testify, but HHS in a statement called Bright's complaint was "filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation."
Bright criticized administration officials for waiting three months after he emailed them about potential mask shortages to invoke the Defense Production Act to require domestic N95 mask production. He said some masks sourced from overseas don't meet U.S. effectiveness standards.
"Nurses are rushing in the hospitals thinking they're protected, and they're not," Bright said.
Bright alerted HHS officials in January to concerns about medical mask shortages, according to a whistleblower complaint he filed May 5.
The Trump administration invoked the Defense Production Act to force 3M to manufacture N95 masks on April 2.
HHS said that BARDA is not responsible for buying masks, and that Bright advocated for sending government financial assistance to Prestige Ameritech but not other vendors.
"HHS and its inter-agency partners have procured contracts for the delivery of hundreds of millions of N95 respirators from a host of suppliers. As head of BARDA, Rick Bright was not part of the broader inter-agency effort to procure masks," HHS said in a statement.
A survey of 323 hospitals in March conducted by the HHS Office of Inspector General found that widespread personal protective equipment shortages put patients and hospital staff at risk.