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Attorney for Dr. Rick Bright Interviewed on His Upcoming Testimony before Congress; President Trump Claims U.S. Economy Will Rebound Next Year after Coronavirus Pandemic Ends; Cinco de Mayor Crowds Pack Streets in Atlanta. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 6, 2020 - 08:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Want out of this?

DEBRA KATZ, ATTORNEY FOR DR. RICK BRIGHT: Well, we have asked the Special Counsel to stay his removal from his position as director of BARDA. What my client wants is to get back to work, where he's singularly capable and qualified to be leading this nation's efforts to combat COVID-19.

BERMAN: There are three basic areas listed in this complaint. Number one, the doctor suggests that he warned the administration about some of the risks facing the country with coronavirus, that's one. Number two, cronyism, dating back a couple of years, in terms of various types of procurement within the administration. And number three, his concerns about hydroxychloroquine which is this treatment that the president was touting and that Dr. Bright had concerns about.

I want to start with the warnings he gave because, new, something I had not seen, were these emails that I'm going to read right now from Dr. Bright that are part of the complaint. Warning about mask supply. He writes, "Hearing facemask supply is getting very low as China and Hong Kong are trying to procure. I've alerted critical infrastructure protection on this throughout the week, may need to consider options here also before things are done." He also forwarded an email from someone who worked in the mask industry who said "U.S. mask supply is at imminent risk." And then this email also forwarded from the same individual, "Rick, I think we're in deep shit. The world." So these emails indicate that Dr. Bright was concerned about masks, but what proof do you have that his concerns were not heard?

KATZ: We didn't increase mask production. There was no effort to do that. What should have happened as soon as this pandemic hit was we should have got masks to China, one, and two, we have should have increased mask production. There was a study done the previous year that in the event of a pandemic, this country would need 3.5 billion masks to equip healthcare workers and other first responders, and our stockpile had 100 million masks. The fact we were this understocked was well known, and as soon as this pandemic hit, Dr. Bright alerted everyone within his chain of command to the fact that this would create a health calamity. If first responders and medical personnel did not have masks, what would happen is what we saw play out in New York and in other hot spots.

BERMAN: How did they respond? How did they respond to his warnings specifically, through? Did they tell him he was wrong?

KATZ: They said we'll look at it. They went back and forth. There was no sense of urgency. And if you see the progression through those emails, he continues to sound out the human cry, and no one is addressing it. And when he tried to raise this with Secretary Azar on January 23rd that these needs are urgent, the administration was still pursuing a policy of containment, trying to keep the virus out of the country. And for virologists and people who are experts, like Dr. Bright, said it is probably already here. We need to combat this. We know the numbers we need. The complaint doesn't just talk about masks, it also talks about syringes and swabs and needles. This is all critical.

BERMAN: Now, cronyism is a different allegation made in here that dates back prior to coronavirus, saying that preferencing contracts was being given somehow to people close to the administration. What is the proof here?

KATZ: Well, we also have a lot of documentation that is in the complaint. Scientists would consider contract proposals from pharmaceuticals and would say this drug is not as good as this drug, and we should not be stocking up on drug a, because drug b has been shown in clinical trials to be more efficacious. And what we saw was a pattern of disregarding the experts and having an industry lobbyist who is close with Dr. Kavelick (ph) who would somehow end run them, and the contract would be awarded to the less preferred provider and drug even though scientists were all aligned that that was not appropriate.

BERMAN: Just to be clear, the lobbyist that you name in this allegation has denied what has been suggested here. We will let people hear Dr. Bright on this subject next week.

And then the third area, which has received a lot of press, is hydroxychloroquine. The doctor had concerns over the administration touting this as a treatment when it had been unproven. This was the cause, was suggested by Dr. Bright, of his being removed from BARDA and put at the NIH. This is something that the administration has suggested is not true. They say there are big concerns about Dr. Bright for some time and they put out this statement overnight. "Dr. Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing critical to combating COVID-19 where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort. We're deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor." Your response?


KATZ: Well, it's like everything else that has been put out about Dr. Bright. It is not true. When Dr. Bright was first contacted by Dr. Kavelick (ph) and told he was being shifted to NIH, it was like you are a victim of your own catastrophic success, we need you over there. You are singularly capable. The next day after Dr. Bright objected to his involuntary removal and said he was going to file a whistle-blower complaint, the administration took a different tact and said he is a nonperformer, he moved too fast, he was too slow. They had never talked to him about the duties and responsibilities of this position. This is not the right position for him. He is singularly qualified to lead this nation's effort in fighting this pandemic. He should be back at his desk at BARDA leading the nation's effort.

BERMAN: You have said he's been on medical leave, which is the reason he hasn't shown up. He's been suffering from hypertension, you say, since he was moved out. Is he well enough to testify next week? And what happens if the administration tries to stop that testimony?

KATZ: He is going to testify next week. He is well enough to testify. And what the stress is for him is that lives are being lost every minute, and he is not in a position to help that effort. And that is causing massive stress for him. He wants to be back in his role, and I can tell you that he has heard from dozens and dozens of BARDA employees and other people in HHS who are desperate to get him back in this role. He's got broad-based support to return to the role because he is the guy who you look to do help the nation combat this deadly pandemic.

BERMAN: Debra Katz, we appreciate your time this morning. Thank you for being with us. We are interested to hear what Dr. Bright has to say next week in public.

KATZ: You will hear it. He will be there.

BERMAN: Appreciate it.

KATZ: Thank you.

BERMAN: Erica?

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Let's bring in now CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CNN White House correspondent John Harwood. As you just heard from Debra Katz, the attorney there for Dr. Bright, she says he will be there next week, he will testify, that he is feeling well enough to testify. John Harwood, any sense from the White House that they may try to stop that testimony?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Don't know. We'll see if they make an attempt. But I think it will be difficult for them to stop him, having removed him from his job. He could defy a White House attempt to stop him. So I think we're going to hear from him. And this is what oversight is all about. We know the administration is not fond of oversight, especially from the House of Representatives. But I think at this point that is testimony that they're not going to be able to stop.

BERMAN: I have to say, Sanjay, there is a lot in this complaint, and a lot of it -- some of it had been known, the dispute over hydroxychloroquine, cronyism is a separate matter, but seeing an email exchange in January about concerns of masks, specific concerns about mask supply in January of this year, it's really interesting to see that there was that concern of some inside the administration. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I hadn't seen

those emails before. This is a 90-page sort of letter or brief, rather, and I've read a good chunks of it. But those are a little bit more surprising.

I think the question you asked, John, is so critical because -- which is, so these complaints, these concerns that Dr. Bright had, were they acted upon in some way? We do know, for example, Secretary Azar did raise these issues, some of these issues with the president, a couple of times in January. So exactly what the conversations were, what the specific concerns were that were being brought to the White House, we don't know at this point.

But we also know that one of the things that Dr. Bright talked about was that he had really wanted -- he had asked for a genomic sequence to come from China to help being able to analyze this. And in fact, a genomic consequence was shared with the United States on January 11th, January 12th sort of timeframe that weekend. So was that as a result of his concerns, or was that parallel tracks? There is going to be a lot there to sort of dig into.

HILL: There is also just in terms of there being a lot there, it is the other questions that this raises. So this is one person's whistle- blower complaint, but, John, it raises other questions as we're seeing too, the White House task force, we're hearing from the vice president essentially being drawn down by Memorial Day. We're seeing changes in the way things are being handled by the administration even today. Is there a sense at all that this is part of the discussion in the White House, certainly not publicly, but behind closed doors?

HARWOOD: Well, I wouldn't think that Dr. Bright's situation is behind the winding down of the task force, but, look, I think, Erica, that the wartime president has decided this is too difficult to stick with, that he is sort of waving the white flag. The pressures between trying to make slow headway against the virus by pressing states to stay close and to follow the guidelines that he laid out are being met by the counterpressure from business and from the president's own thought that he's got to get the economy up and running for his reelection.

And the question is going to be, how much can you get an economy up and running for your reelection when the vast majority of American people are anxious about going out. How much of an economy can you open up when the virus is out there in such substantial measure and people are so concerned about it. It is a gamble the administration is taking that they can move on, count on governors to take care of the issue, count on science to take care of the issue, with some of the therapeutics and vaccine research that's going on, and gamble that the economy is what I'm all about, and that's going to -- what I'm going to rise or fall on in the election. Very tough when you've got an unemployment rate coming this week of perhaps 20 percent, very difficult economic situation as well as public health situation.

BERMAN: Sanjay, from a public health standpoint, what do you think will be lost when the task force goes away?

GUPTA: I think there will be a lot of work going on. To be fair, these agencies will continue to work on the therapeutics and the vaccine, the research is obviously well under way and those are big obviously tasks. I think it is more, maybe more subjective. There is a seriousness, a gravity to the situation that I think is being conveyed by these task force meetings. I think there was knowledge that was being dispensed to the public. I think that's worked. As you have shown in these polls, people still, even in states that are reopening are still cautious, at least they say they're being cautious about wanting to go out to these things. I think some of that is a result of just hearing from these public health officials about why this virus is so problematic, that it is contagious, that we haven't really gotten it under control yet, and what is needed -- testing.

There is a cognitive dissonance still, John, those people who say, look, we're done, this is over, and the disbanding of the task force is more evidence of that. This is not over. I think most people realize that, but I hope that they don't take the wrong message from the task force being disbanded, or at least not having these briefings anymore.

HILL: In terms of messaging, we're talking about more than 71,000 Americans who have lost their lives, the president has been asked before if he has a message for their families, for their loved ones. He was asked again what his message is to those who have lost people. I just want to -- I think we're going to going to cue that up to play in a moment, because I think what it does as we're just preparing that sound, and John Harwood, I'll warn you this is coming to you, it is perhaps not surprising the way the president phrases it, but it does remind you that in this moment, we need to be reminded that this is not what we normally hear again. This is the president's message to those who have lost someone to the virus.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to say I love you. I want to say that we're doing everything we can. You can never really come close to replacing when you've lost -- no matter how well we do next year. I think our economy is going to be raging, it is going to be so good. No matter how well those people can never, ever replace somebody they love, but we're going to have something that they're going to very be proud of.


HILL: So you can't replace a loved one, that's what we know, but we're going to give you a raging economy that your late loved one could be proud of? That messaging alone, plus the fact that so many Americans are not ready to go back out, really speaks to the disconnect, John, and the focus that it is simply on the economy, with a disregard for the public health.

HARWOOD: Erica, consistent theme of Donald Trump's presidency has been his personal difficulty, his inability to effectively express empathy for people who are suffering. There you see the president converting that question from David Muir into a discussion of the economy. He talked about the vast amount of money we're providing to help people, he's thinking in fiscal, financial terms rather than human terms. We have not seen the president, for example, go to funerals of COVID patients to try to personally bond or identify with people. Now, of course, a lot of funerals are not taking place, but even the gestures that the president -- that a president could make at a time like this, he's not making.

I want to add one other thing to the point that Sanjay made earlier. Yes, the work of Deborah Birx and Dr. Fauci will still go on, but it is the president in his role as the person with the bully pulpit, the person sending a message to the country, he's the one who is trying to move on. The federal apparatus will continue, although not with the kind of robust presence that some people think is necessary, say, to ramp up the testing and contact tracing.

BERMAN: It was interesting listening to the president last night. In addition to mentioning the economy in reference to those who have been lost, he also did say, and this is the first time I heard him say that, that he can't sleep at night because of those who are lost. So he was trying, I think, to work through what he should say during that answer.


Sanjay, some medical news overnight, genetic sequencing of the virus around the world indicating that it was here and spreading, you know, at the end of last year. We're getting more and more indication of just how early this was present.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: This is somewhat stunning, but not surprising at the same point to see how early this was spreading because, you know, first, you think, OK, this made a move from animals to humans at some point and then there was evidence of human to human transmission. That's the next big sort of flag. And then you start to see that it is community spreading.

That typically, we thought, is happening, you know, much later and now given that there is lots of people who seem to have contracted this virus and had no connection, no obvious connection to people in China, for example, had not returned from China, had no connection to people who were known to be infected and yet were still contracting it, really does move the timeline further and further back. I think what's interesting about this genetic analysis, as viruses spread from people, and now spread among, you know, some 3 million people, they mutate. The virus mutates a little bit.

Question is always, how much is it mutating? We know, for example, the flu virus, it mutates a fair amount, enough to actually create a new flu vaccine every year. They call that sort of the drift of the antigens.

With the coronavirus, it still appears to be a relatively stable virus. But there does appear to be a couple of variants, including one that was more predominantly spreading in Europe, and that one was more contagious, although not necessarily more deadly. And that has become the predominant strain now circulating around the world.

So, I think this is something researchers are going to pay attention to see if mutations on the surface of the virus are enough to warrant different approaches to vaccines or not. We don't know that yet, but certainly interesting to look at this timeline.

BERMAN: All right. Sanjay, John Harwood, thanks very much for being with us.

The number of cases as we have seen continues to rise. The states are reopening. But look at this scene, from Atlanta, during Cinco de Mayo. The restaurants open, people out on the streets, how much of a concern is this?

The mayor of Atlanta joins us next.



BERMAN: All right, we have images of crowds, Cinco de Mayo crowds, people celebrating out in Atlanta at restaurants. This follows the loosening of restrictions by Georgia's governor last week. The number of new infections and deaths continues to rise, statewide.

Joining me now is the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Mayor, thank you very much for being with us.

I don't know if you've had a chance to see those images. People out, they were on the streets, they were celebrating. What's your reaction?

MAYOR KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS (D), ATLANTA, GA: It was disappointing. And what was very clear was that people didn't get anything past the message that we were open up for business. They didn't get to the part that said this was still a daily virus and you needed to continue to socially distance and wear masks.

And I think that's the shortcoming of this order. We're not out of the woods. There is a new hot spot in our state, in northeast Georgia, the last one was southwest Georgia, and Albany area. And this hot spot is moving very rapidly through a less populated community.

So, people throughout the state, whether you're in the city or small town are feeling the effects of this virus.

BERMAN: What can you do? I mean, when you see those crowds, those people and some of them were distant, but many of them were clearly not socially distanced, a lot of people wearing masks. Is there anything that you can do?

BOTTOMS: This is a question that we're working on daily, what can we do? The governor has made it very clear that he's not willing to allow local cities to tweak his order. I have specifically asked about some tweaks and the governor is not in agreement with that.

And so, we will -- we will continue to message to our communities, continue to work with our advisory council on how best to reopen the city of Atlanta. We recently did a poll, with about 25,000 respondents, letting us know what they feel about the reopenings and how they will feel more comfortable going out into the public.

But at the end of the day, we can -- we will just continue to ask people to please stay home.

BERMAN: Clearly, there is an appetite among some at least to get out. I mean, we did see that on the streets yesterday. So, how do you address that appetite?

BOTTOMS: I know it's very real. I just had a very robust conversation with my 18-year-old about getting out. And so, what we have to do is, again, say it over and over and over again. And just been speaking with my 18-year-old, I feel like a broken record.

In many ways I feel the same way speaking to the people of Atlanta, but we have to say it repeatedly. We will continue to enforce the smaller crowds. I can tell you it is a challenge because reopening the state means that all of the things that come along with reopening businesses are already stretching our public safety personnel, adding on top of that now having to break up crowds and remind people to socially distance, puts our personnel in danger and it continues to stretch our resources.

But it's -- it's where we are and it's what we have to do and I just hope that responsible people will continue to stay home and have regard for the lives of others.

BERMAN: I can speak -- personally, I need a haircut badly. I'm wondering if you have partaken in any of the things that reopened in Atlanta or at least been tempted over the last ten days.

BOTTOMS: I have not. Thankfully, my mother owned a hair salon for 25 years. So, I'm able to hold on maybe a little longer than most. But it is certainly -- we all want to go to the hair salon to get our nails done and do those things that are normal.

But, no, as far as I venture out is to the grocery store, and I go out for a daily walk. And I know -- it's taxing on people, and especially for people who are struggling to put food on their table.

So, for some of us, it's about wanting to engage in leisure activities, and others, it's about eating every day.


BERMAN: When you look at the numbers, the African-American community is suffering disproportionately to the rest of the country to coronavirus. It makes up about 13 percent of the country, but the number of those infected and the number of those killed is substantially higher around the country.

How can that be addressed?

BOTTOMS: Well, and, again, going back to the new hot spot that we have in Georgia, up in Hall County and Gainesville area, the Latino population is around one-third of the population in that area, but it accounts for half of the COVID-19 cases. So this is what we're seeing across the country. Black and brown communities are being disproportionately impacted.

I think there are layers to this. As it relates to this virus, it's simple, we've got to continue to stay home to the extent that we can and separate ourselves, but I think the other layers that we have to continue to address are the health disparities and the living conditions that are making black and brown communities more susceptible.

But I do just want to add one thing, in Georgia, those underlying health conditions are prevalent throughout our state, throughout the south and so simply because you're not a product of a black or brown community doesn't mean that you are immune because so many people have these underlying health conditions.

BERMAN: This is not a matter in Atlanta, but it is in Georgia, has to do with Ahmaud Arbery. He was the young man, African-American, who was killed while jogging some time ago. A grand jury is supposed to hear this, although no grand juries are meeting right now.

What do you want to see in this case?

BOTTOMS: I'm glad that a grand jury will be looking at this. I mean, this -- this is heart breaking. It is a tragedy and it's a story that we hear all too often, that men of color are targeted, and that their lives are taken, and I'm glad that there will be a grand jury to examine this.

But I think, again, these underlying issues that we have in this country, we have got to have very real conversations about race, and not just with our African-American boys as I have to have within my household, but as a country as a whole, what our underlying biases are and how those play out and what we see that in some situations, it is the worst case scenario as with this young man.

BERMAN: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, we appreciate your time. Thanks for being with us this morning.

BOTTOMS: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Some grocery stores, even fast food restaurants running out of meat. We'll discuss, next.