Ousted Head of Virus Vaccine Effort Accuses White House of Retaliation

An arrangement of hydroxychloroquine pills in Las Vegas on April 6. (AP Photo/John Locher)

(CN) — Years before the initial coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration steered contracts to those politically or financially tied to the White House, including President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and even a global pandemic did not stop the agency’s parade of cronyism and stifling of scientific dissent.

Those are the blockbuster allegations that Dr. Rick Bright, the former head of U.S. vaccination efforts against the pandemic, formally leveled on Tuesday, blaming his removal on the Trump administration’s fixation with an unproven antimalarial drug.

Calling to be reinstated as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and as deputy assistant secretary for the Health and Human Service’s preparedness division, Bright ties his ouster to recent reporting about Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, a top Trump donor.

Four days after Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer,” Bright allegedly received a directive from Bob Charrow, general counsel of U.S. Health and Human Services, for BARDA to establish a protocol that would expand access to chloroquines beyond the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization for its use against Covid-19.

“Mr. Charrow told him that the protocol was to include a new database or application created by Oracle to assist in determining who got the medicine and to allow patients to enter their symptoms into an app in lieu of seeing a physician while taking the drug,” the complaint states. 

Bayer had newly donated 3 million pills of the drug, but the immunologist said he resisted the call to “drop everything” and make that supply available to the public.

“Dr. Bright opposed the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as lacking scientific merit, even though 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,” the 57-page whistleblower complaint states. 

Dr. Rick Bright in a 2017 official photo. (Credit: Health and Human Services)

Bright filed his charge with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, accusing the administration of creating “substantial and specific” dangers to public health and safety, in addition to whistleblower retaliation and censorship.

Breaking his silence about his treatment, Bright told reporters during an hourlong telephone conference Tuesday that a pandemic should not be manipulated for political gain. 

“We cannot afford to silence and dismiss scientists in our country and sever our ties with scientists around the world,” Bright said. “It is inappropriate to place dedicated scientists in crosshairs.” 

Attaching a glossary of names in his complaint, Bright lobs accusations against several members of HHS leadership, particularly his immediate supervisor, Assistant Secretary for Response and Preparedness Robert Kadlec.

As Bright tells it, Kadlec allowed those with political or financial ties to the Trump administration to dictate policy before, during and after the initial coronavirus outbreak.

Bright says he and Kadlec clashed in 2017 over the outsized role that pharmaceutical industry consultant John Clerici played in Trump’s HHS. This was around when Clerici had pressured Bright to sign a contract with Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, according to the complaint.

Bright says Clerici was emphatic that the company’s CEO “has Hollywood connections” and was “friends with Jared,” referring to Kushner.

Earlier this year, as the novel coronavirus began spreading around the globe, Bright allegedly sounded the alarm during a Jan. 23 meeting with senior HHS leadership.

When the immunologist expressed the need for urgent access to funding, personnel and clinical specimens, however, HHS leadership allegedly expressed its disinterest with profanity.

“It was obvious that Dr. Bright’s persistent demands for urgent action to respond to the pandemic had caused a ‘shit storm’ and a ‘commotion’ and were unwelcome in the office of the HHS Secretary,” the complaint states. “As a result, HHS leadership excluded Dr. Bright and BARDA from these recurring meetings and from the critical discussions about addressing the Covid-19 pandemic.”

When Bright’s lawyers suggested that the suit was imminent last month, Health and Human Services quickly mounted a counterattack where it depicted Bright as an advocate for the antimalaria drug he now says has been inappropriately promoted out of politics and cronyism.

Bright’s attorney Debra Katz rejected that characterization in Tuesday’s press call. “Dr. Bright’s removal from BARDA was retaliation, pure and simple,” she said.

Emails that undercut the government’s story — one of which Bright received from the leader of BARDA’s task force on Covid-19 medical countermeasures — are peppered through Tuesday’s complaint.

“I do not believe we should accept the donation [of chloroquine from Bayer] until we have an understanding on the clinical utility of the drug,” Dr. Christopher Houchens wrote (brackets in original). “Accepting the donation could lead to widespread use that is not supported by any clinical data.” 

Appearing to accept that advice, Bright adopted a cautious approach in an email with Joseph Hamel, a manager with HHS at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

Bright requested “all information and data received” about the Bayer donation and “all prior discussions” with Bayer, according to the complaint.

While Bright called his transfer to the National Institutes of Health a way to smother his dissent, HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley asserted the position was critical in the fight against the pandemic.

“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,” Oakley wrote. “We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor.”

That praise for the NIH position sharply contradicts what that agency’s director Francis Collins’ is quoted as telling Bright in the complaint.

“Dr. Collins then said something to the effect of: ‘I believe you’re being victimized here, you’re caught in the crosshairs,” the complaint states, referring to Collins’ reaction to Bright’s transfer. “I didn’t see the need to move you out either.”

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