Rick Bright, who was reassigned from his job as the federal government’s top vaccine expert this week, says he will file a whistleblower complaint alleging he was demoted because he refused to back the White House’s claims that hydroxychloroquine is a wonder drug that could put an immediate stop to the coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump’s administration abruptly removed Bright from his post as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which develops civilian countermeasures against chemical, nuclear, and radiological threats, bioterrorism, and pandemics, to a another role at the National Institutes of Health this week. According to the New York Times, Bright said in a statement that he resisted pressure to direct money toward the drug, which he described as one of several “potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.”
Bright was not informed of his termination and only learned when his email account was frozen and his name was removed from BARDA’s website this weekend, a source told Politico.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that hydroxychloroquine, which did not have a proven track record against the virus, could be a “game changer” in the fight against the virus. In the weeks since, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its website first to seemingly instruct doctors on the use of the drugs on patients, and then to remove it. The journal that first published a small French study claiming the drug’s utility, the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, has since issued a statement saying that research fell short of “scientific scrutiny and best practices.”
Another French study involving 181 patients found that the drug had no statistically significant impact on mortality or ICU admissions, but was associated with the development of abnormal heart rhythms. Another of 368 coronavirus patients at Veterans Affairs medical centers found that mortality rates reached 27.8 percent among 97 individuals given hydoxychloroquine, compared to 11.4 percent among others. The National Institutes of Health has since advised there is “insufficient clinical data” to determine whether the drug should be prescribed and that patients on it should be monitored for “adverse effects.”
Medical opinion has not yet coalesced around whether the experimental treatment could ultimately pan out, however, and it would be misleading to say it has been conclusively debunked. None of the research so far has been definitive. Another study in New York, the largest so far, has not been released yet, and a global-scale World Health Organization trial is ongoing.
Over the course of the past few weeks, conservative media including Trump’s favorite, Fox News, aggressively promoted the experimental treatment and accused skeptics and scientists behind conflicting research of conspiring to deliberately keep the public from a lifesaving treatment just to spite the president. Bright alleged that he was removed from his post at BARDA after he refused to devote considerable emergency resources into study of hydroxychloroquine rather than proven therapies, which might have something to do with that bad-faith right-wing furor.
“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” Bright said in a statement to media. “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science—not politics or cronyism—has to lead the way.”
Bright did not explicitly name Trump in the statement, although it is clear that the political pressure he referred to emanated from him and other top officials in the administration: “My professional background has prepared me for a moment like this—to confront and defeat a deadly virus that threatens Americans and people around the globe. To this point, I have led the government’s efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the Covid-19 pandemic...I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed Covid-19 while under the supervision of a physician.”
White House officials told a different version of the story to the Times, saying that Bright had “clashed repeatedly” with assistant health secretary for preparedness and response, Dr. Robert Kadlec, and that he was a “polarizing figure” in the Department of Health and Human Services.
However, they provided few specifics other than a leak of emails to Reuters last week appearing to show the Food and Drug Administration lowered its standards to rush through emergency approval of a potentially suspect version of hydroxychloroquine manufactured by Bayer. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Caitlin Oakley’s statement to the paper emphasized Bright’s role in approving emergency use of the drug.
“As it relates to chloroquine, it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for donations of chloroquine that Bayer and Sandoz recently made to the Strategic National Stockpile for use on Covid-19 patients,” Oakley told the Times. “The EUA is what made the donated product available for use in combating Covid-19.”
A top former official told Politico that Bright had been removed because “BARDA was not as responsive during the crisis” as it should have been, adding that “Rather than prioritizing therapeutics that could be available in weeks, Bright focused on products that would take weeks or months.” Politico wrote that one example of that could be that BARDA waited five weeks after the declaration of a public health emergency to solicit development proposals for coronavirus treatments, though that former official’s statement to the site could also be interpreted as a fairly obvious attempt to spin a White House-friendly narrative around Bright’s skepticism of hydroxychloroquine.
Another source told the Times that Bright had been pressured to rush through approval of the drug after Trump discussed the drug with Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, one of several non-medical, Trump-friendly figures who have promoted hydroxychloroquine. That Times wrote that source said Bright was then “directed to put in place a nationwide expanded access program to make the drugs available on a broad basis without specific controls in place.”
According to CNN, Bright has been removed but refuses to resign his post. The New York Post reported he has hired attorneys Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, who represented Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who in 2018 accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in 1982.
Trump, who has a long history of proclaiming ignorance whenever evidence of misconduct emerges and in particular has a habit of lying that he’s never even heard of an underling involved in a scandal, said Wednesday that he’d never even heard of Bright.
“You just mentioned the name, I never heard of him,” Trump told reporters. “When did this happen? I never heard of him. The guy says he was pushed out of a job. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t; I’d have to hear the other side. I don’t know who he is.”