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Former Vaccine Director Alleges HHS Ignored COVID Warnings and Promoted Nepotism in Whistleblower Complaint

President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence walk with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senator Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Tuesday, March 10, 2020, upon their arrival to the U.S. Capitol for a Senate Republican policy lunch. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen) Date: 10 March 2020, 12:48 Source: President Trump and Vice President Pence on Capitol Hill Author: The White House from Washington, DC

Bright’s whistleblower complaint casts the inner workings of HHS as highly politicized during a time of global pandemic.

Vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright filed a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday, detailing weeks of early COVID-19 warnings that were allegedly ignored. Bright is the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an organization within the Department of Health and Human Services. In April, he was removed from his position and reassigned to a role at the National Institutes of Health, CNN reported.

Pressure to Recommend Unproven Drug

According to the 89-page complaint, his removal came at the behest of the Trump administration officials due to Bright’s hesitation to recommend the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19. Alex Azar, secretary of Heath and Human Services (HHS), and Robert Kadlec, his deputy, allegedly compelled Bright to make the drug recommendation, the LA Times reported.

“In an apparent effort to score a short-term political victory for the Administration during the escalating health crisis,”  they “pressured BARDA to promote the malaria drug chloroquine as a therapeutic for COVID-19, despite a clear lack of scientific support,” the complaint reads.

The push for hydroxychloroquine also came directly from the White House via HHS general counsel Bob Charrow in a March 23 command. Bright’s direct superior, Azar, was instrumental in overseeing efforts to normalize the use of hydroxychloroquine. Bright’s account of events detail how he worked with Janet Woodcock, a top official at the Food and Drug Administration, to thwart plans to make the unproven coronavirus remedy easy to access.

It was Woodcock who suggested Bright submit hydroxychloroquine for an emergency use authorization, which allowed it to be added to the national stockpile while simultaneously preventing it from widespread usage, STAT reported.

“The HHS clinical and regulatory expert teams worked frantically for 48 hours without sleep to come up with a plan that would ensure the greatest level of safety for people who received this drug,” Bright’s complaint stated.”Dr. Bright and Dr. Woodcock ultimately prevailed upon their colleagues, and the FDA assisted BARDA in drafting an EUA request and provided it to Dr. Bright on the evening of March 28, 2020.”

Bright harbored reservations about the prospect of using hydroxychloroquine in an unproven application and was “extremely concerned about the prospect of chloroquine being made available to the public “without close patient monitoring by medical professionals,” according to the complaint.

HHS Ignored Early Warning, Complaint Alleges

His objection to hydroxychloroquine was not the only source of conflict between Bright, the HHS, and Trump officials. The whistleblower complaint said Bright sounded the alarm on US unpreparedness as early as January. HHS officials responded with “indifference which then developed into hostility.”

“Dr. Bright pressed for urgent access to funding, personnel and clinical specimens, including viruses, which he emphasized were all critically necessary to begin development of lifesaving medicines needed in the likely event that the virus spread outside of Southeast Asia. Secretary Azar and Dr. Kadlec responded with surprise at Dr. Bright’s dire predictions and urgency,” Bright’s complaint reads.

‘Shit Storm’ in HHS

Bright’s insistence that America was not equipped to handle the virus poured salt into old wounds from unrelated, prior disagreements within HHS, CNN reported. Ultimately, a negative response from HHS officials found Bright left on the outside when meetings were held to organize a COVID-19 response. 

“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, 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,” the complaint reads.

Furthermore, his complaint alleges Kadlec abused his position at HHS to secure funding for projects of his personal friends. It also names several biotech companies that became connected to Kadlec via a consultant at Tiber Creek Partners: Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, Partner Therapeutics, Alvogen, and Aelous Pharmaceuticals. Aeolus is also connected to Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to President Donald Trump, STAT reported.

Attorneys for Bright argued his removal violated the Whistleblower Protection Act because he “has engaged in numerous instances of protected activity,” according to CNN. Bright informed five legislators when Kadlec decided to withhold and delay $3.5 billion appropriated for BARDA in March. After Bright decided to speak with a reporter and publicly share his concerns with using hydroxychloroquine, his superiors decided to remove him in retribution, the complaint alleges.

Bright’s whistleblower complaint casts the inner workings of HHS as highly politicized during a time of global pandemic, which cost him his job. He argues in his complaint that the antics could also imperil lives.

“Lack of leadership and action by [other HHS officials] has placed the health and safety of all Americans at risk of not being protected from the deadly coronavirus even when a vaccine becomes available.”

Daniel Davis

Daniel Davis is Managing Editor for The Osage County Herald-Chronicle in Kansas and also covers International news for Inside Over, a Milan-based global affairs publication. He graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Outside of writing, he enjoys photography and one day hopes to return to video production. Learn more about him at his website danieldavis.la.

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