HHS official plans to file whistleblower complaint


Rick Bright, deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response for Health and Human Services (HHS), listens during a House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2018.

Toya Sarno Jordan | Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal vaccine scientist who was ousted from leading an agency dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak will soon file a whistleblower complaint alleging retaliation for his resistance to promoting a coronavirus drug treatment touted by President Donald Trump, his lawyers said Thursday.

Rick Bright’s attorney’s also accused the Trump administration of making “demonstrably false statements” about Bright to deflect attention from the reason for his removal earlier this week as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

The lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, said that they would file formal complaints with both the federal Office of Special Counsel and the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department over Bright’s forced transfer from BARDA. HHS oversees BARDA.

The complaints will detail “the retaliatory treatment to which he was subjected by HHS political leadership after raising appropriate science-based concerns about White House pressure on treatment and vaccines related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the lawyers said in a prepared statement.

“In our filing we will make clear that Dr. Bright was sidelined for one reason only — because he resisted efforts to provide unfettered access to potentially dangerous drugs, including chloroquine, a drug promoted by the Administration as a panacea, but which is untested and possibly deadly when used improperly,” the lawyers said.

“The facts and concerns raised by Dr. Bright are compelling and well-documented and soon they will be public.”

After Bright was removed from his post leading BARDA, he was given a job with fewer responsibilities at the National Institutes of Health, according to HHS.

The White House has declined to comment on Bright. HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his lawyers’ statement Thursday.

Bright, in an explosive statement Wednesday, tied his removal to his pushing back against widespread adoption of chloroquine and other anti-malarial drugs, which Trump has touted as potential lifesavers for coronavirus patients

Bright also said that he believed he was removed from his post because he insisted that “the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic” be invested “into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.”

“I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way,” Bright said in a statement.

Hours after his statement was released, HHS said on Wednesday night, “It was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for donations of chloroquine that Bayer and Sandoz recently made to the Strategic National Stockpile for use on COVID-19 patients.”

“The EUA is what made the donated product available for use in combating COVID-19,” said HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley.

But Bright’s lawyers on Thursday said, “The administration is now making demonstrably false statements about Dr. Bright, one of the nation’s leading vaccine, drug and diagnostic experts, to deflect attention from its retaliatory removal of him as the Director of” BARDA.

A source familiar with Bright’s situation told NBC News that the Trump administration had pushed for expanded access to the anti-malarial drugs nationwide for Covid-19 patients, with limited physician oversight.

The source told NBC News that, “Dr. Bright and his team were insisting upon a randomized controlled clinical study because there was insufficient information on the benefit and the potential harms of the drug to patients with COVID-19.”

“Dr. Bright and FDA colleagues were also concerned about the quality of chloroquine supplies produced and shipped in from facilities in India and Pakistan that were not approved by the FDA,” the source said.

The source added that implementing the emergency use authorization for the donated medications was a compromise between the two positions, and that Bright did so at the direction of the political leadership of HHS.

Earlier Thursday, a source close to Bright told NBC News that he was instructed to develop a national program geared to expanding access to the drug hydroxychloroquine after Larry Ellison, the billionaire chairman and co-founder of software giant Oracle, spoke with Trump about using the drug to treat Covid-19 patients. Ellison has raised campaign funds for Trump.

Bright’s lawyers, in their statement Thursday, called him “an exemplary public servant as demonstrated by the multiple excellent performance reviews he has received to date.”

“It remains Dr. Bright’s sincerest hope that once he makes these facts known he will be reinstated to his role as Director of BARDA and that he will be able to focus his efforts on stopping the pandemic without further political pressure or distractions.”

An analysis earlier this week found no benefit in using hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus, and that there were more deaths among Covid-19 patients in veterans hospitals who received hydroxychloroquine compared with those who were given standard care.

On March 21, Trump had tweeted that “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” Azithromycin is an antibiotic.

But on Tuesday, a panel of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommended that doctors not use a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin in treating Covid-19 “because of the potential for toxicities.”

The panel said the drugs should only be used in combination in clinical trials. 

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