Ousted Vaccine Chief Rick Bright Accuses Trump of Witness Intimidation

Richard Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, arrives for a May 14 at the House to discuss protecting scientific integrity in response to the coronavirus outbreak. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

(CN) — Rattling off a list of ongoing retaliation following his whistleblower complaint, former vaccine chief Rick Bright on Thursday said tweets about him from President Trump smack of witness intimidation.

“I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, never met him or even heard of him, but to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and  who,  with  his attitude, should no longer be working for our government,” Trump tweeted on May 14, shortly before Bright had been set to testify to Congress on pandemic-related cronyism.

The timing was no coincidence, Bright emphasized in a 10-page amendment to his whistleblower complaint.

“This message was a clear attempt by the president to unnerve and intimidate Dr. Bright 90 minutes before his congressional testimony,” the document states.

Bright’s attorneys Debra Katz and Lisa Banks unveiled their client’s new claims the day after U.S. coronavirus infections hit an all-time high.

“As we pass more than 122,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths in America and over 2.4 million confirmed cases, it is imperative that HHS put science ahead of politics, and take appropriate action to fight this deadly virus, including returning Dr. Bright to his position as director of BARDA,” they wrote in a statement, using the abbreviation for a subagency of U.S. Health and Human Services that is leading vaccine development in response to the pandemic.

Bright, who was removed in April as BARDA’s head, says he was demoted to a position at the National Institutes of Health for complaining about a virus response stained by cronyism and politics. His first complaint alleged the Trump administration demanded New York and New Jersey be “flooded” with hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug unproven for use against Covid-19 a month ago and increasingly discredited since that time. 

Since that whistleblower complaint, the Trump administration’s vendetta against Bright has been unrelenting, according to his attorneys.

“To the great detriment of the country’s public health and safety, Secretary Azar and his team have sidelined, disparaged and attempted to thwart the efforts of Dr. Bright, one of the nation’s leading pandemic and vaccine experts, to punish him for speaking out about HHS’s irresponsible and chaotic response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” they wrote, referring to the head of Health and Human Services. “Dr. Bright was correct about the many issues he raised months ago — from his warnings about the scarcity of masks and PPE, to the administration’s failure to develop diagnostics and stockpile therapeutics — and the failure of the administration to heed those warnings has had a catastrophic effect on this country.” 

Before his transfer to NIH, Bright says, it was common for that agency to share resources, work product and scientific expertise with BARDA.

Bright alleges that his replacement, Gary Disbrow, has neither returned his call nor responded to emails dated June 9, 10 and 11.

According to the new filing, Disbrow has instructed a BARDA employee to follow suit in an explicit effort to undermine Bright at his new job.

“Dr. Disbrow warned this employee to be ‘very careful,’” the document states. “He explained that Secretary Azar was very angry with Dr. Bright and was ‘on the war path.’ He explained that Secretary Azar directed HHS employees to refrain from doing anything that would help Dr. Bright be successful in his new role.

“Dr. Bright was shocked and disturbed by this news,” it continues. “On one hand, it was unfathomable that the secretary of HHS was directing employees to undermine its work on Covid-19 diagnostics in the middle of a pandemic, solely to retaliate against an employee who made protected disclosures about illegal and improper actions within HHS. On the other hand, the news was consistent with Secretary Azar’s previous public statements disparaging Dr. Bright, and also explained why Dr. Bright was being ignored by Dr. Disbrow, a colleague with whom he had a positive relationship for nearly ten years.”

In a statement forwarded by HHS, however, Disbrow denied icing his predecessor from BARDA.

“I did not make any of these statements and Secretary Azar has never spoken to me in the manner alleged,” Disbrow said. “I have also never instructed any BARDA employee not to talk to Rick. In fact, I had a conversation with him yesterday about how to collaborate between RADx and BARDA. I am confused by these untrue statements and allegations, which distract from the important work we are doing in response to the coronavirus.”

Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Caputo calls Bright’s latest salvos misleading.

“His whistleblower complaint is filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation that have been completely debunked,” Caputo said, providing no examples. “When will the media stop carrying his water?”

Characteristic press-bashing from the Trump administration aside, Bright’s allegations never have been rebuffed, and many have been corroborated since he went forward with his claims. The doctor warned that hydroxychloroquine had dubious efficacy as a coronavirus treatment long before the Food and Drug Administration echoed that viewpoint with warnings shelving its emergency-use authorization. 

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