Virus Vaccine Chief Says He Was Fired for Questioning Drug Trump Praised

A chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in New Delhi, India. Chloroquine and a similar drug, hydroxychloroquine, have been pushed by President Donald Trump after some early tests suggested the drugs might curb coronavirus entering cells. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Rick Bright, the doctor who said Wednesday he was ousted from his role overseeing a federal office tasked with coronavirus vaccine development because he put science ahead of politics, is a perfect stranger to President Donald Trump — at least, to hear the president tell it.

During the White House coronavirus taskforce briefing Wednesday night, and on the heels of a blistering statement from Bright in which he detailed his removal from the role of director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and as deputy assistant secretary for the Health and Human Service’s preparedness division.

“I never heard of him,” Trump told reporters Wednesday night. “If a guy says he was pushed out of a job maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. You would have to hear the other side. I don’t know him.”

First reported by The New York Times, Bright said he was “involuntarily transferred” from his position at BARDA to a role that held far fewer responsibilities at the National Institutes of Health after he openly challenged the Trump administration’s hocking of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treatment of the novel coronavirus.

The National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia and others have questioned the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. Though studies like those by NIH-UVA are not peer reviewed, others like those originating from France and China have reported the drug as only somewhat useful and sometimes dangerous.

There are more than two dozen clinical trials underway, according to an update issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday.

Bright, who spearheaded influenza and infectious disease studies for the Health and Human Services Department before taking on the directorial role at BARDA, regularly challenged Trump’s peddling of the drug.

“My entire professional background has prepared me for a moment like this — to confront and defeat a deadly virus that threatens Americans and people around the globe,” Bright said in a statement issued to The New York Times on Wednesday through his attorney Debra Katz of the Washington firm Katz, Marshall and Banks.

Katz’s firm represented Christine Blasey Ford, who accused U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct before he was successfully appointed by a Republican-held Senate to the land’s highest court in 2017.

Coming to “clashes with HHS political leadership,’ Bright said his retaliation was born from his rejection of chloroquine and hydroxycholorquine even as Trump touted it as a panacea to the virus.

He says he was also retaliated against for his consideration of other available treatments.  

“Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safety and effectively address this urgent public health crisis,” Bright said.

At the briefing Wednesday night, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, declined to answer a question from a reporter about whether Bright’s “gifts” were being squandered in a narrower role at NIH.

Though he would not comment on the transfer, Fauci said he felt Bright’s work would be “very, very important” at the institute and that he would be ‘involved in the generation of new diagnostics.”

“And for the future of facilitating the kind of things we’ll need,” Fauci added.

This prompted Trump to jump in.

“What do you know about his gifts? You say his gifts? What are his gifts?” Trump said to the reporter before hurrying toward another topic.

While the president said he has “no idea” who Bright is, Bright has asked the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services to help possibly jog the president’s memory.

Bright, through his attorneys, asked the department watchdog to investigate how the Trump administration has politicized BARDA’s work during the coronavirus pandemic and how it has created a culture of retaliation and political pressure inside related agencies to support vaccine companies that “lack scientific merit,” Bright said.

He also contends this hostile atmosphere has persisted for at least a year before the pandemic began.

While Trump has denied knowing Bright, Politico reported late Wednesday that sources “with knowledge of HHS’ recent acquisition of tens of millions of doses” of potential Covid-19 treatments said Bright had praised the Trump administration’s moves.

Bright’s attorney did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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