After his surprise removal from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA)—a key agency partnered with pharma companies on COVID-19 drugs, vaccines and diagnostics—former Director Rick Bright is alleging whistleblower retaliation by HHS leadership.
In an 89-page complaint published by The New York Times, Bright says he was “involuntarily removed” from his BARDA position on April 20 by Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec, M.D., who was taking orders from HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the former BARDA director tried to “ensure that the U.S. government dedicated the appropriate resources and expert personnel to combat this deadly virus,” the complaint says. In response, HHS “political leadership leveled baseless criticisms against him," he alleges.
For its part, a spokeswoman for HHS said the agency is "deeply disappointed" that Bright "has not shown up to work" in his new role. Last month, Bright was transferred to a new public-private partnership called ACTIV under "a bold plan to accelerate the development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms.” There, he was "entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort," a spokeswoman said.
Bright, of course, sees things differently.
Initial COVID-19 response
As the COVID-19 threat became clear in China, the former BARDA chief started sounding alarm bells to colleagues. With HHS leadership, though, his concerns fell flat, the complaint says. His repeated warnings and calls for action put him at odds with senior HHS officials, as the agency's talking points at the time were that the "immediate risk to the U.S. public is low at this time."
Starting in January, Bright spent weeks trying to bolster U.S. preparedness, including by increasing the supply of masks and other medical equipment. On January 18, he pushed for "Disaster Leadership Group" meetings, but according to the complaint, faced initial skepticism from Kadlec over the necessity of such a measure. The groups have met during outbreaks of Ebola, Zika and more.
On January 23, Kadlec convened the group and “plowed through the abbreviated meeting, addressing topics in a perfunctory manner and paying short shrift to the concerns that Dr. Bright raised,” the complaint says.
That same day, at a meeting of senior HHS officials, Bright pressed for funding, personnel and an urgent start to the R&D process for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines. That rankled some of the attendees, according to the document.
In response, Azar and Kadlec “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,” the complaint says. Bright wasn't included in the following COVID-19 meeting held by HHS officials.
'A big immediate win'
Things took a turn for worse in a dispute over chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, drugs that President Donald Trump touted without meaningful evidence in COVID-19. Bright had “objections and resistance to funding potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections and by the administration itself,” the complaint says.
The president has called hydroxychloroquine a potential "game-changer," but Bright had his own concerns. As he saw it, the drugs lacked “scientific merit” and were “imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA."
In March, amid that hype, an HHS official instructed one of Bright's BARDA colleagues to check out data on the drugs, adding that they could be a "big immediate win."
After Bright felt he "exhausted all avenues to alert government officials" about the risks of the meds, he opted to take another route. The former BARDA chief was contacted by a journalist reporting on the subject, and Bright decided to corroborate the reporting under a "moral obligation to the American public."
“HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar and Dr. Kadlec, were already gunning for Dr. Bright’s removal because of other issues he had raised about fraud, waste, and abuse, but they chose to remove him as BARDA Director within days of publication of the article about chloroquine because they suspected that he was the source,” the complaint says.
But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Bright had disagreements with HHS leadership, the complaint says. Starting in 2017, he observed that political and financial considerations were entering the decision-making process for BARDA contracts—over scientific evidence.
Bright's complaint outlines four instances in which companies or researchers with ties to a pharma consultant allegedly gained improper access or influence to the agency's review procedures.
With his complaint, Bright is asking for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to put him back in his BARDA role and conduct a “full investigation.”