Rick Bright and the Pandemic Path Not Taken

May 15, 2020
In The News

Many Americans are replaying, in their minds, the steps they have taken and the choices they have made with regard to the coronavirus crisis, but perhaps few with such tragic force as Rick Bright, who testified in a House hearing on Thursday. Bright, who in April was transferred from his position as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, had caused a “commotion,” as one colleague put it, by urging more action at pandemic-planning meetings as far back as January and February. At the hearing, Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat of Maryland, who had a pewter-gray mask around his neck—the members lowered their masks when speaking or, in some cases, when seated—asked Bright to return to that period. “I am sure that there are specific conversations, e-mails, moments in time that you remember like they happened yesterday,” Sarbanes said. Could he recall any particularly haunting ones that had caused a “sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach?” Bright answered by speaking about e-mails he’d received in late January from an American mask manufacturer who warned, “ ‘We’re in deep shit. The world is. And we need to act.’ ” He said, “And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in H.H.S., and got no response. From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis—our health-care workers—because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production, to save the lives of those health-care workers. And we didn’t act.” The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers. Sarbanes observed that there was “one inescapable conclusion” to be drawn from Bright’s testimony: “It didn’t have to be that way. There was another path. Things could have gone differently.” It is, at this point—with more than eighty thousand people in the U.S. dead, and, for New Yorkers, the experience barely behind us of the days when the city’s health system was so overwhelmed that the dead couldn’t properly be dealt with—hard to say otherwise. Yet almost no one in the Trump Administration has said so, and certainly no one at Bright’s level.