Watchdog says vaccine chief whistleblower may have been retaliated against

Dr. Rick Bright claims he began raising concerns with HHS as early as January.

May 8, 2020, 4:08 PM

Lawyers for Dr. Rick Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint earlier this week, said Friday that a federal watchdog has determined sufficient evidence exists that his removal as head of an office that oversees vaccine production was retaliation.

The lawyers said the Office of Special Counsel will request that the Department of Health and Human Services stay his removal from the agency while his claim is investigated.

Bright, the former head of the federal agency charged with overseeing the rapid production of a vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus, alleged in his complaint that he was removed from his job in "retaliation" for raising concerns over various aspects of the administration's coronavirus response.

Bright said last month he would be filing a whistleblower complaint "detailing the retaliatory treatment to which he was subjected to by political leadership at HHS after raising appropriate science-based concerns about White House pressure on treatment and vaccines related to the COVID-19 pandemic."

In the lengthy complaint, Bright details alleged instances where top government officials ignored his warnings about the threat of the virus. Bright claims he began raising concerns as early as January, but was met with "indifference which then developed into hostility" from HHS leadership, including Secretary Alex Azar.

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PHOTO: Rick Bright, deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response for Health and Human Services (HHS), speaks during a House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2018.
Rick Bright, deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response for Health and Human Services (HHS), speaks during a House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2018.
Toya Sarno Jordan/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

But Bright alleges he had been objecting to what he described as "cronyism" in HHS leadership for years. He claims he has faced pressure to "to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism" since the spring of 2017.

Specifically, Dr. Bright alleges tensions "reached a boiling point" after he "resisted efforts to fall into line with the Administration's directive to promote the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and to award lucrative contracts for these and other drugs even though they lacked scientific merit and had not received prior scientific vetting."

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

Bright is requesting to be returned to his position as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, as well as "a full investigation." He was removed from his job last month in charge of the group, known as BARDA, which recently received more than $3 billion in federal funds to help ramp up production capacity so that any discovery of a coronavirus vaccine can be quickly manufacture and distributed to hundreds of millions of Americans. His removal from the post stunned some lawmakers who had been pushing for a more robust vaccine effort.

In the complaint, Bright details what he says was the administration's plan to use a hydroxychloroquine donation from Bayer in order to "make the drug available for the treatment of COVID-19 outside a hospital setting and without close physician supervision."

Bright alleges he received an "urgent directive" from the HHS General Counsel Bob Charrow that was passed down from the White House "to drop everything and make the chloroquine donated by Bayer widely available to the American public."

Though the plan did not go through, Bright alleges the "Administration nevertheless continued to push for expanded, unsupervised access to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine."

Bright also details numerous clashes with his boss Dr. Robert Kadlec, the current Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the Department of Health and Human Services, whom he accuses of doling out government contracts based on personal connections rather than scientific merit.

Bright alleges another official in ASPR disclosed to him that "he sought to keep his distance" from the ASPR funding program "because he was concerned about its potentially illegal and unethical processes."

"As made explicit in email exchanges, Dr. Kadlec and his subordinates viewed Dr. Bright as an obstacle to their efforts to move BARDA money around," the complaint alleges.

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