Shark Tank Initiative: Combatting COVID-19, Part 6: Whistleblower Dr Bright – A Personnel Issue
This is the sixth in the multi-article series about the Shark Tank initiative, discussion Dr. Bright’s whistleblower complaint about corruption, political and industry influence in BARDA’s work.
Whistleblower Dr. Bright
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) raised the issue of the whistleblower complaint filed by former Director of BARDA Dr. Bright, Dr. Disbrow’s predecessor. The complaint is currently under investigation by the Office of Special Counsel. According to Murray, it “detailed an alarming degree of corruption and incompetence among political leadership across Health and Human Services and the Trump Administration.” In particular, she noted that Dr. Bright had stated that the:
“White House ignored warnings about COVID-19, failed to take steps to adequately secure supplies and personal protective equipment, and otherwise prepare a response. Failed to secure testing supplies, pushed untested and unproven drugs against expert advice, and political leaders put career public health officials in a terrible position where they had to decide between doing what they’re told versus what is right, with people’s lives on the line.”
It’s a Personnel Matter
She further inquired as to whether Drs. Collins or Disbrow had any reason to doubt Dr. Bright’s claims. Dr. Bright has made allegations of corruption, as well as undue political and industry influence. Lacking personal knowledge of the situation, Dr. Collins replied that he can’t form his own opinion on the matter, and can only go by what he has read. Dr. Disbrow noted that this is a personnel matter, currently in the hands of the Office of Special Counsel. As such, he cannot really comment.
Commitment to Full Compliance with OSC Investigation
Murray informed Drs. Collins and Disbrow that she expected them to fully comply with any investigation into Dr. Bright’s claims, warning that she would continue to follow these allegations. She made a few requests of Drs. Disbrow and Collins. First, she asked the two to commit to prioritizing public health above all else. Additionally she requested they resist pressure for political favors, and to speak out against corruption, incompetence and misconduct. Finally, she asked that they commit to protecting HHS employees from political interference in the course of carrying out their duties. In particular, she expects them to protect those who speak out to ensure public health efforts are always guided by science, not personal profit or politics. Both agreed to do so.
It’s Not a Personnel Matter
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) revisited the issue of Dr. Bright’s complaint with Dr. Disbrow, stating that his referral Dr. Bright’s allegations as personnel matter, is incorrect. Moreover, he stated that Dr. Bright wasn’t fired for showing up late, Dr. Bright alleges he was fired for talking to superiors about the culture of corruption in which industry players and non-scientific input had influence over decisions made by BARDA. Senator Murphy asked if Dr. Disbrow would agree that getting to the bottom of these allegations is key for Dr. Disbrow as the temporary or acting head of this agency, and whether he has an opinion about outside industry groups having too much sway inside BARDA. Dr. Disbrow replied:
“I do think it’s important, and sure there will be an investigation. I’ve been at BARDA for 13 years. All proposals that come in have to go through a scientific review. The review is based on science, technical merit, the feasibility of the actual program, and the ability of the company to potentially do the work. We review those, they’re done by inter-agency partners through the technical evaluation process, they’re then reviewed and then we make awards. And so, I’m still confident in the way we make our investment decisions, that they’re based on science, and based on the best technology that we can bring forward.”