The head of a U.S. government agency combatting the coronavirus pandemic is alleging that he was ousted for opposing politically connected efforts to promote a malaria drug that President Donald Trump touted without proof as a remedy for COVID-19.
Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said in a statement Wednesday that he was summarily removed from his job on Tuesday and reassigned to a lesser role. His lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, called it “retaliation plain and simple.”
Controversy has swirled around the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine since Trump started promoting it from the podium in the White House briefing room.
BARDA, the agency that Bright formerly headed, is a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services created to counter threats from bioterrorism and infectious diseases. It has recently been trying to jump-start work on a vaccine for the coronavirus.
“I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way,” Bright, who has a doctoral degree in immunology, said in his statement, which was released by his lawyers.
“Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit,” Bright said.
“I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.”
‘Maybe he was’ pushed out: Trump
Trump, when asked about Bright at Wednesday’s White House briefing on coronavirus, said he “never heard of him.”
“The guy says he was pushed out of a job,” Trump said. “Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. … I don’t know who he is.”
Bright and his lawyers are requesting investigations by the HHS inspector general and by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that has as part of its charge the protection of government whistleblowers.
“While I am prepared to look at all options and to think ‘outside the box’ for effective treatments, I rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public,” Bright wrote.
He also alluded to “clashes with HHS political leadership” over his efforts to “invest early in vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives.” One of the major criticisms of the Trump administration’s pandemic response is that little was done in the month of February to stockpile needed equipment.
“Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics,” Bright said.
Alex Azar, a lawyer and former drug industry executive, leads the HHS, the second permanent chief for the agency during Trump’s term.
Two agencies Alex Azar oversaw as HHS secretary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, wouldn’t come up with viable coronavirus tests for five and a half weeks, even as other countries and the World Health Organization had already prepared their own.
Behind the scenes, his aides say, Azar had alerted the White House to the alarming virus reports in China in early January, and then later that month spoke directly to the president. It is unclear exactly what Azar told the president, because transcripts are not available.
Trump denied Azar sent out alarms. “@SecAzar told me nothing until later,” he tweeted earlier this month.
By late February, Vice-President Mike Pence had taken over from Azar as the lead on the administration’s main coronavirus task force.
In a statement Wednesday night, HHS confirmed that Bright is no longer at the BARDA agency, but did not address his allegations of political interference in scientific matters.
Questions over efficacy of hydroxychloroquine
HHS said it was Bright who had requested an emergency use authorization for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. In his statement, Bright had said he insisted that the authorization be limited to a restricted group of patients, those hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 under the supervision of a doctor.
Hydroxychloroquine was given to patients in the New York area, the nation’s most intense COVID-19 hot spot. It is usually administered in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin.
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The HHS inspector general’s office had no response to Bright’s request for an investigation. But on Capitol Hill, leading Democrats seconded the call for an inquiry.
“President Trump is not a doctor, a scientist or a medical professional,” said Rosa DeLauro, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs a House panel that oversees HHS finances. “The notion that he and his political appointees are making personnel decisions based on how effective the president thinks drugs like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine will be … is completely unacceptable.”
Trump has repeatedly touted the malaria drug during his regular coronavirus briefings, calling it a “game-changer,” and suggesting its skeptics would be proved wrong. He has offered patient testimonials that the drug is a lifesaver.
But a recent study of 368 patients in U.S. veterans hospitals found no benefit from hydroxychloroquine – and more deaths. The study was an early look at the medication, which has prompted debate in the medical community, with many doctors leery of using it.
Bright’s allegations were first reported by The New York Times, and echoed the events that led to Trump’s impeachment in the House and subsequent acquittal in the Senate in January. In the latter case, Trump and several Republicans in Congress excoriated an anonymous whistleblower whose complaint raised alarms about the motives of the administration’s foreign policy in Ukraine.
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An official biography describes Bright as a flu and infectious disease expert who joined the agency 10 years ago and was focused on vaccine development. He also held the title of HHS deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response, reporting to Dr. Robert Kadlec. HHS said Bright is now assigned to the National Institutes of Health, working on new approaches to testing.
The HHS is a very large department, overseeing almost every federal public health agency in the country, with a $1.3-trillion budget that exceeds the gross national product of most countries.