‘Lives were lost’ as US officials refused to ramp up production of N95 masks, whistleblower says

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Rick Bright arrives to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on May 14, 2019, in Washington, DC.

Greg Nash | AFP | Getty Images

Dr. Rick Bright said he’ll never forget the moment when he realized the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc in Asia would also become a crisis in the U.S.

“We’re in deep s—. The world is, and we need to act,” read the email he received from a top U.S. medical supplier.

Bright, who oversaw the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was checking on the nation’s supply of N95 masks. He immediately forwarded the email to his superiors at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but no one responded, he said.

“From that moment on, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball,” he testified before a House health subcommittee Thursday. “That was our last window of opportunity to turn on production to save the lives of our health-care workers.,and we didn’t act.”

U.S. officials ignored Bright’s warnings in January, refusing to ramp up mask production as shortages grew, said Bright, who was ousted from his position overseeing the U.S. vaccine program at BARDA. President Donald Trump finally invoked the Defense Production Act on April 2 to compel 3M, one of the top manufacturers of N95 masks in the U.S., to ramp up production.

“Lives were in danger and I believe lives were lost,” Bright said.

Bright said he told department leadership there would be a shortage of the critical supplies and the needed to protect health-care workers. The solution offered by HHS officials at the time was to change U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by advising the public against wearing medical-grade equipment to save the supply for health-care workers, he said.  

“My response was, ‘I cannot believe you can sit and say that with a straight face,'” Bright said. 

To this day, Bright said doctors and nurses in the nation’s hospitals are relying on N95 respirators that were procured in other countries but don’t meet U.S. safety standards. 

This is a developing story. Please check back later for updates. 

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