Rick Bright, Former Top Vaccine Scientist, Files Whistleblower Complaint

May 5, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 9:38 pm

Updated at 7:03 p.m. ET

The federal scientist who was ousted last month as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority has filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

Rick Bright was a high-ranking federal scientist focused on vaccine development and a deputy assistant secretary with the Department of Health and Human Services. On April 20, Bright said, he was transferred to a "less impactful position" at the National Institutes of Health after he was reluctant to promote the use of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients.

In the complaint, Bright alleges a range of government wrongdoing by Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, and others. Bright was supervised by Kadlec, who in turn reported to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

At the time of his removal, Bright said he had been ousted because of his "insistence" that the government spend funds on "safe and scientifically vetted solutions" to address the coronavirus crisis and not on "drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit."

Bright says in the complaint that he raised concerns in January about the need to prepare for the coronavirus but encountered opposition from Trump administration officials. He says he was transferred out of BARDA in retaliation.

According to the complaint, relations between Bright and Kadlec had been strained since 2018 or so, when Bright began "raising repeated objections to the outsized role Dr. Kadlec allowed industry consultants to play in securing contracts that Dr. Bright and other scientists and subject matter experts determined were not meritorious."

"Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, Dr. Bright became even more alarmed about the pressure that Dr. Kadlec and other government officials were exerting on BARDA to invest in drugs, vaccines, and other technologies without proper scientific vetting or that lacked scientific merit," the complaint continues. "Dr. Bright objected to these efforts and made clear that BARDA would only invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic in safe and scientifically vetted solutions and it would not succumb to the pressure of politics or cronyism."

The complaint alleges that Bright made repeated efforts to get the U.S. government to make adequate preparations for the coronavirus but was stymied by political appointees leading the HHS, including Azar.

Bright says that in an effort to get the word out to the public about the risks associated with hydroxychloroquine, he shared with a reporter nonclassified emails between HHS officials that "discussed the drug's potential toxicity and demonstrated the political pressure to rush these drugs from Pakistan and India to American households." He says Azar and Kadlec removed him from his post within days of publication of an article about chloroquine because they suspected he was the article's source.

NIH Director Francis Collins said last week that Bright has been reassigned as a senior adviser there, though his specific role is "under development."

Bright says he stopped receiving a paycheck on April 20 and has not been assigned any further duties or responsibilities and "remains in limbo."

The Department of Health and Human Services offers a differing account of Bright's employment status.

"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," HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said in a statement to NPR. "We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor."

Bright's attorney made news of the whistleblower complaint public Tuesday.

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