The U.S. government official overseeing the purchase and funding of vaccines, treatments, and tests for the coronavirus was fired in retaliation for his efforts to stand up to the Trump administration’s cronyism, according to a whistleblower complaint his attorneys made public today.
Richard Bright, the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the federal department of Health and Human Services, was already clashing with his political bosses before the coronavirus pandemic hit, according to a 63-page document Bright’s lawyers filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. They initially said Bright would file his complaint with both the HHS Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates abuses against federal employees. But after Trump fired the inspector general last week, his attorneys filed his complaint only with the Office of Special Counsel.
While Bright had experienced years of pressure to ignore expert recommendations and award lucrative contracts based on political connections, it was his resistance to the Trump administration’s efforts to promote the use of hydroxychloroquine and other drugs to treat Covid-19, “even though they lacked scientific merit and had not received prior scientific vetting,” that cost him his job managing the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, according to the report. BARDA is responsible for procuring vaccines, treatments, and other countermeasures for pandemics and other public health emergencies and has spent more than $1.5 billion on products meant to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bright’s relationship with HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Bright’s direct superior, Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, had been tense since at least 2018. According to the whistleblower complaint, both Kadlec — who has no scientific training and previously served on the staff of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. — and Azar wanted him fired because Bright resisted what he saw as the outsized influence of industry consultants, including one who represented a company with ties to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
At a 2017 meeting, that consultant, John Clerici, warned Bright about John McManus, the CEO of Aeolus Pharmaceuticals. McManus is “a wildcard, and he is the kind of person who would write stories about you for the newspapers,” Clerici told Bright, according to the report, which also noted that Clerici described McManus as “friends with Jared” and someone who “has Hollywood connections.”
Bright, who has a Ph.D. in virology and had overseen BARDA since 2016, described mounting tensions with his supervisor and details several instances in which procedures designed to ensure scientific integrity fell under political pressure. In 2018, Kadlec approved a $55 million contract that extended support for a drug that a task force of scientific experts had concluded was not worthy of ongoing funding. The drug, oseltamivir, was made by Partner Therapeutics, which had hired Clerici to manage its bid to the agency. Kadlec and Bright also apparently clashed over a drug that was billed as a “miracle cure” for viral illnesses, yet had not been subject to clinical trials or tested for safety in humans.
Still, it was the pandemic that brought the conflict to a boil and cost Bright his job. As coronavirus infections spread across the country, Trump became particularly enamored with the drug hydroxychloroquine, which he heralded as a “game changer” despite evidence that it caused fatal cardiac problems.
According to his lawyers, Bright tried to call attention both to the lack of scientific evidence of the drug’s benefits and its safety. Nevertheless, they say, “the Administration promoted it as a panacea and demanded that New York and New Jersey be ‘flooded’ with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA.”
In response to a question on the complaint form asking “Why do you believe that agency officials would retaliate against you?” Bright wrote, “I insisted on scientifically-vetted proposals, and I pushed for a more aggressive agency response to COVID-19. My supervisor became furious when Congress appropriated billions of dollars directly to my office, and when I spoke directly to members of Congress.”
The Department of Health and Human Services and John Clerici did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On April 22, the internal conflict exploded and Bright announced that he had been removed from his position. On the same day, a Veterans Administration study showed that hydroxychloroquine failed to offer a clinical benefit and found that Covid-19 patients who took the drug were more likely to die than those who didn’t.
Update: May 5, 2020
After publication, a spokesperson for the Department of Heath and Human Services provided the following statement: “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 $1 billion to advance that effort. We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor.”