Ousted US whistle-blower says Trump health official played down coronavirus threat

Henrietta Strickland
May 6, 2020

Bright had "objections and resistance to funding potentially unsafe drugs promoted by those with political connections and by the administration itself", the complaint says.

Dr. Rick Bright, an immunology expert and until last month the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), said in addition to retaliation for objecting to President Donald Trump's public insistence that hydroxychloroquine was effective at treating Covid-19, he faced sustained pressure from HHS officials since the beginning of the Trump administration to steer millions of dollars in contracts to the client of lobbyist John Clerici.

Bright said the Trump administration wanted to "flood" hot spots in NY and New Jersey with the drug.

His claims are detailed in a complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which oversees protections of whistleblowers.

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement that Bright was transferred to a job where he was entrusted to spend around US$1 billion to develop diagnostic testing. After Bright leaked emails to a journalist that illustrated this push from the Trump administration, he was suspected as the source within HHS, the complaint alleged.

But, Bright notes, his supervisors took little note, instead sidelining him and excluding him from key planning meetings, weeks before the first coronavirus cases were reported in the U.S.

He said he "acted with urgency" to address the growing spread of COVID-19 after the World Health Organisation issued a warning in January.

But he said he "encountered resistance from HHS leadership, including Health and Human Services Secretary (Alex) Azar, who appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic event".

The 89-page complaint documents repeated efforts by Bright in the first weeks of 2020 to urge Azar, Kadlec and other administration officials to quickly mobilize to secure masks and other protective equipment for the USA medical system to prepare for an outbreak of the virus here.

Bright found an ally in White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who was also urgently concerned about the virus.

Navarro's memos to top officials raised alarms even as Trump was publicly assuring Americans that the outbreak was under control.

"Dr. Bright hoped that by shining a light on HHS's reckless and risky push to make these drugs available, American lives would be saved", the complaint continues.

In late January, Bright said he was contacted by an official of a leading mask manufacturer about ramping up production.

But Bright alleges he had been objecting to what he described as "cronyism" in HHS leadership for years.

In the complaint, Bright says he wants to returned to his position as the director and a full investigation.

The Food and Drug Administration recently cautioned against using the drug outside a hospital or clinical trial setting. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side-effects among COVID-19 patients taking hydroxychloroquine or the related drug chloroquine.

The former BARDA chief was contacted by a journalist reporting on the subject, and Bright chose to corroborate the reporting under a "moral obligation to the American public". He said he had to tell the public about the lack of science backing up its use, despite the drug being pushed by the president at press briefings.

"As the death toll mounted exponentially each day, Dr".

Bright said last month he would be filing a whistleblower complaint "detailing the retaliatory treatment to which he was subjected to by political leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services after raising appropriate science-based concerns about White House pressure on treatment and vaccines related to the COVID-19 pandemic".

Trump has accused the United Nations agency of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus after it emerged in China and said he would cut its funding.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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