Ousted vaccine chief says administration put politics over science

The Trump administration’s former vaccine chief repeatedly warned top officials about a shortage of critical resources and supplies for fighting the coronavirus as early as January, but the administration took no action, according to a whistleblower complaint.

In the complaint filed Tuesday, Rick Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), alleged that his efforts to “prioritize science and safety over political expediency” rankled political leaders across the administration and directly resulted in his ouster.

Bright had been in charge of BARDA since 2016 until last month, when he was reassigned to a narrower position at the National Institutes of Health.

Bright is seeking to be reinstated to his former position and is asking for a full investigation into his reassignment.

According to the complaint, Bright pressed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about the threat of the virus and the urgent need to act, but “encountered indifference which then developed into hostility from HHS leadership.”

While Bright was pressing HHS officials to provide necessary resources to begin vaccine, drug and diagnostic development to combat COVID-19, he alleged HHS Secretary Alex Azar was instead focused on downplaying the threat of the virus. 

“Rather than deferring to Dr. Bright’s expertise and judgment and heeding his calls for urgent action, HHS leadership criticized him for his efforts and removed him from meetings going forward,” the complaint alleged. 

Bright said he tried to secure and expand the procurement of N95 masks, as well as testing swabs and syringes. Bright in the complaint said he told HHS leaders that money was urgently needed to develop diagnostics and drugs to combat the virus when it eventually spread to the United States but was later told he had “offended” HHS leadership by pushing for urgent funding.

In addition, Bright said he was pressured by top HHS officials to promote the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine “and to award lucrative contracts for these and other drugs even though they lacked scientific merit and had not received prior scientific vetting.”

Bright said he opposed the broad use of those drugs because they lacked scientific merit, even though the administration promoted it as a panacea to the coronavirus and demanded that New York and New Jersey be “flooded” with the drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.

Bright said he was continuously pressured “to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism.” 

Bright said he 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.”

Specifically, Bright said he repeatedly clashed with Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, about the “outsized role played by John Clerici, an industry consultant to pharmaceutical companies with a longstanding connection to Dr. Kadlec.” 

In addition, Bright alleged Kadlec declined to coordinate senior-level meetings in mid-January as the virus was spreading across China, suggesting that he was “not sure if that is a time-sensitive urgency.”

The next stop for Bright could be a congressional panel. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce’s health subcommittee said she is planning a hearing next week where Bright will testify. Eshoo said she would like to hear from Azar and Kadlec, “if possible.” 

Updated at 5:14 p.m.

Tags Anna Eshoo Barda Coronavirus HHS medical supplies ouster
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