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Trump administration ignored repeated coronavirus warnings, ousted scientist says in whistleblower complaint

Dr Rick Bright claims that his early warnings about Covid-19 were ignored and that his caution at a treatment favored by President Trump led to his removal
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Dr Rick Bright, the ousted director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), has filed a formal whistleblower complaint, alleging that he was removed from the position amid the Covid-19 pandemic because of his efforts to prioritize science and safety over political expediency. 

He was removed from his position on April 20 after having served as BARDA director for nearly four years (he was appointed as BARDA director in November 2016). He was reassigned to a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

“Dr Bright was removed as BARDA Director and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response amid the deadly Covid-19 pandemic because his efforts to prioritize science and safety over political expediency and to expose practices that posed a substantial risk to public health and safety, especially as it applied to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, rankled those in the Administration who wished to continue to push this false narrative,” says the complaint. He says that he insisted on scientifically-vetted proposals, and pushed for a more aggressive agency response to Covid-19. 

“Similarly, Dr Bright clearly earned the enmity of HHS leadership when his communications with members of Congress, certain White House officials, and the press – all of whom were, like him, intent on identifying concrete measures to combat this deadly virus – revealed the lax and dismissive attitude HHS leadership exhibited in the face of the deadly threat confronting our country,” the complaint further states. 

The scientist claims that the agency involuntarily transferred him to another agency without warning or explanation. “I was involuntarily removed from my position as Director of BARDA and transferred to NIH. Though no one ever provided a reason to me, an HHS spokesperson announced that my transfer was part of a “bold new plan to defeat Covid-19,” he writes. 

The complaint says that when Covid-19 emerged as a global threat, Dr Bright was uniquely positioned to lead BARDA in its crucial work of combating this existential public health threat. However, the scientist claims that he repeatedly clashed with his supervisor Dr Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, who took orders from US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar. “Their relationship had been tense since approximately 2018 when Dr Bright began raising repeated objections to the outsized role Dr Kadlec allowed industry consultants to play in securing contracts that Dr Bright and other scientists and subject matter experts determined were not meritorious,” the letter states. 

The complaint alleges that once the coronavirus pandemic hit, Dr Bright was more alarmed about the pressure that some government officials were exerting on BARDA to invest in drugs, vaccines, and other technologies without proper scientific vetting or that lacked scientific merit. “Dr Bright objected to these efforts and made clear that BARDA would only invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic in safe and scientifically vetted solutions and it would not succumb to the pressure of politics or cronyism,” the letter says.

The complaint alleges that Dr Bright was removed from his post as a result of his efforts to expose practices that posed a substantial risk to public health and safety especially as it applied to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine (Getty Images)

The complaint claims that despite Dr Bright’s efforts to ensure that the US government dedicated the appropriate resources and expert personnel to combat this deadly virus, HHS political leadership leveled baseless criticisms against him for his proactive efforts to invest early in vaccine development as well as in critical supplies such as masks, respirators, and swabs, which were in short supply and would be necessary to combat Covid-19. 

Thereafter, HHS allegedly retaliated against Dr Bright for his objections and resistance to funding potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections and by the Administration itself. Specifically, Dr Bright opposed the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as lacking scientific merit, even though the Trump Administration “promoted it as a panacea” and demanded that New York and New Jersey be “flooded” with these drugs, “which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA.” 

During a call with journalists, Dr Bright reiterated the same. “Government leadership was rushing blindly into a potentially dangerous situation by bringing in non-FDA approved chloroquine from India and Pakistan from facilities that had not been inspected by the FDA. I could not in good conscience ignore the scientific recommendations to limit access to those drugs under the direct care of a doctor, and instead, allow political ambition and timelines to override scientific judgment. That was one of the many things I pushed back on with senior leadership with HHS,” reports the Washington Post.

Dr Bright felt an “urgent and compelling need to inform the American public” that there was insufficient scientific data to support the use of these drugs for Covid-19 patients. Stating that since he felt he had exhausted all avenues to alert government officials, who refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public, Dr Bright concluded that his only remaining avenue was to share his concerns with a journalist. “Accordingly, Dr Bright confirmed information for the reporter and provided corroborating documentation,” the complaint says. He was removed from his post within days of publication of the article about chloroquine because they “suspected that he was the source.” 

Dr Bright further claims that after first insisting that he was being transferred to the NIH because “he was a victim of his own success,” HHS leadership soon “unleashed a baseless smear campaign” against him, leveling false allegations about his performance in an “attempt to justify what was clearly a retaliatory demotion.”

The complaint claims that the political leadership leveled baseless criticisms against him for his proactive efforts to invest early in vaccine development as well as in critical supplies such as masks, respirators, and swabs (Getty Images)

The letter emphasizes that unlike Azar, Dr Bright and other public health officials were fully aware of the emerging threat of Covid-19 by early January 2020. “It was clear to Dr Bright almost immediately that the virus was highly contagious, spreading rapidly, and could have a high mortality rate. Dr Bright and his staff recognized the urgent need to obtain genetic sequencing information about the virus and to acquire viruses and clinical specimens from people infected with the virus to share with laboratories and companies,” it says. While obtaining both were critical to being able to develop reliable diagnostic tools and medicines to combat the virus, Dr Bright initially encountered indifference, says the complaint. He further says that the indifference then developed into hostility from HHS leadership, including Azar, as “Dr Bright and his staff raised concerns about the virus and the urgent need to act.”

The complaint says that his urgency at the end of January to boost the supplies of masks and other protective gear, as well as warnings that supplies were dependent on Chinese imports, caused a "storm" and a "commotion" and were unwelcome in the office of the HHS Secretary. As a result, HHS leadership excluded Dr Bright and BARDA from these recurring meetings, and from the critical discussions about addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, the complaint alleges.

“It became increasingly clear to Dr Bright that HHS leadership was doing nothing to prepare for the imminent mask shortage, which Dr Bright correctly recognized would hinder the ability of medical care providers and first responders to respond to this impending medical crisis,” it says.

In the complaint, Dr Bright has sought reinstatement as BARDA's director and has asked for a full investigation. 

“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 are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor,” said HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley, reports CNN.

However, Bright's spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff Lamy, tweeted that Dr Bright “has not been given any details about his new assignment or what his new job would entail; nonetheless, under his doctor’s direction, he has been on sick leave due to hypertension caused by this current situation.”