- Rick Bright, one of the leading US vaccine scientists, said he was abruptly ousted from his post as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) last month for sticking to science, and refusing to tout “unproven” coronavirus treatments.
- Bright is now asking for his job back, while also accusing federal public health leadership of “cronyism” in its coronavirus response.
- Here’s what he said on Tuesday, as his lawyers released a redacted copy of his federal whistleblower complaint.
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A top US vaccine scientist is asking for his job back on the frontlines of America’s coronavirus response, even as he files a federal whistleblower complaint. He alleges the US Department of Health and Human Services engaged in “cronyism,” awarding high-level contracts to companies with political connections instead of making science-based decisions for the country’s health.
“Today, I am asking for the special counsel to investigate what happened to me, and for this administration to reinstate me in my job as the director of BARDA,” Rick Bright, the former director of that agency, who in April was demoted to a smaller role within the National Institutes of Health, said on a call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Our government’s focus right now should be on saving lives and ending this pandemic.”
Bright’s whistleblower complaint, released Tuesday, alleges that top officials in the Trump administration, including Jared Kushner, put friends and politics above the country’s health.
Bright’s complaint also said that the nation’s top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic threat,” when Bright first tried to sound the alarm to him about the virus in January.
According to Bright’s complaint, Azar “responded with surprise at Dr. Bright’s dire predictions and urgency, and asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out of the United States.”
Bright, however, said he told Azar the virus “might already be here. We just don’t have the tests to know one way or the other.”
Bright also warned about an impending shortage of N95 masks for healthcare workers, as well as medical swabs for coronavirus tests.
In April, as Bright pushed back against treating the novel coronavirus with hydroxychloroquine – an anti-malaria drug that President Trump has touted, but which scientists have been cautious about using because of a lack of strong evidence that it helps and the potential for toxicities – Bright was removed from his job at BARDA and given a smaller role at the NIH.
His lawyers say he is still worried that there aren’t enough needles and syringes in the US to get an eventual coronavirus vaccine distributed properly.
“Dr. Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing – critical to combatting COVID-19 – where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $US1 billion to advance that effort,” Caitlin Oakley, a spokesperson with the Department of Health and Human Services, told Business Insider in an emailed statement on Tuesday evening. “We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavour.”
Here’s a full transcript of what Bright said on a call with reporters Tuesday afternoon:
I’m Rick Bright, Dr. Rick Bright, and I want to thank all of the heroes across America who are putting their lives at risk today while working on the front lines to treat people who are suffering during this pandemic.
I also want to thank all the scientists working long hours behind the scenes to find a cure and a vaccine to halt the spread of this virus as quickly as possible. I am one of those scientists, a scientist who became the director of BARDA in 2016, and it has been a true honour to lead one of the most dedicated teams of scientists at BARDA who are hyper-focused on a single mission to save lives by protecting both our national security and the health and safety of people around the world.
I’ve spent my entire career studying, preparing for, and leading pandemic preparedness response. I’ve learned, and I’ve served in various roles in government in industry and global organisation before joining BARDA in 2010, to lead our nation’s efforts to develop tools to respond to a pandemic.
It was my job to ensure that our country had life-saving tools to be as prepared as possible for a pandemic like COVID 19 and to date, my team at BARDA has formed over 40 industry partnerships to accelerate the availability of tests and treatments and vaccines to address this pandemic.
The past few years, however, have been beyond challenging. Time after time, I was pressured to ignore or dismiss expert and scientific recommendations, and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections. In other words, I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government. And ultimately, I was removed from my position because of my continued insistence that the government invest funds allocated by Congress, hard earned tax payer dollars, to address the COVID 19, and invest them into safe and scientifically vetted solutions instead of funding projects that were promoted by cronies, or politically connected companies.
Most recently, I witnessed government leadership rushing blindly into a potentially dangerous situation by bringing in a non-FDA approved chloroquine from Pakistan and India, from facilities that had never been approved by the FDA. Their eagerness to push blindly forward without sufficient data to put this drug into the hands of Americans, was alarming to me and my fellow scientists. 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. And that was just one of the many improper things that I pushed back on with senior leadership within HHS.
We are in an extraordinarily difficult global crisis and the worst might still be ahead of us. There are many scientific questions yet to be answered. We need strong leadership. Americans need to have all the facts. They need to know the truth about this pandemic. They need to be able to trust that their government and the information that they hear from politicians is based on scientific merit.
The American people are strong and resilient. We can handle the truth. With accurate and consistent information, Americans can be empowered to help find solutions. We need to reestablish trust in our government and in each other.
By working together, we can end this outbreak.
We cannot afford to silence and dismiss scientists in our country, and to strain or sever our ties from scientists around the world.
There has never been a time in our life where their voice has been needed more, and our scientists needs strong leadership too, leaders who provide them with clear and consistent guidance and communications. Leaders who trust their professional scientific judgment, and leaders who refrain from pressuring them to ignore science, to bend the rules, and to prioritise politics above all else. It is inappropriate to place dedicated scientists in crosshairs.
Today, I am asking for the special counsel to investigate what happened to me, and for this administration to reinstate me in my job as the director of BARDA. Our government’s focus right now should be on saving lives and ending this pandemic.
We are in a race against the virus and every day counts. It is my sincere hope that my team at BARDA will be able to continue their race to develop safe and effective drugs, tests, and vaccines. And that’s an endeavour that requires all hands on deck approach.
This story has been updated with an emailed statement from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
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