A new whistleblower complaint alleges that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, pictured with President Trump, and other top health officials ignored warnings in January and February about the need to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
Top Trump administration health officials repeatedly ignored warnings in January and February about the need for masks and other protective equipment to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak, according to a detailed whistleblower complaint from a senior scientist ousted from his post last month.
The whistleblower complaint by Rick Bright, who was abruptly reassigned from his post overseeing drug and vaccine development at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, also says administration officials pressured him to back widespread use of anti-malaria drugs touted by President Trump as a treatment for the virus, even after Bright warned about possible health dangers.
The allegations shed new light on the Trump administration’s disorganized and tardy response to the public health crisis, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives in the U.S. despite assurances by Trump and other senior officials earlier this year that the virus represented little threat to Americans.
Bright, who has a PhD in immunology, was involved in multiple meetings and discussions with senior White House and health officials in the first months of 2020, giving him a front-row seat to the administration response, including Trump’s promotion of the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.
“I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the recommendations of the best scientists we have,” Bright said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Their eagerness to push blindly forward without scientific data to put this drug into the hands of Americans was alarming to me.”
Bright was abruptly removed in April as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a research agency within the Health and Human Services Department that, among other duties, was overseeing research on coronavirus vaccines.
He contends that his reassignment to a lesser job at the National Institutes of Health was in retaliation for his repeated clashes with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Robert Kadlec, an Azar deputy with responsibility for overseeing public health preparedness. Kadlec, the assistant secretary for planning and readiness, oversaw Bright’s office.
Bright’s ouster was “retaliation, plain and simple,” said Debra S. Katz, one of his lawyers. “They sidelined him and excluded him and ignored his very detailed advice.”
His claims are detailed in a complaint seeking reinstatement to his post that was filed Tuesday with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which oversees the protection of whistleblowers.
“HHS political leadership leveled baseless criticisms against [Bright] for his proactive efforts to invest early in vaccine development as well as in critical supplies such as masks, respirators, and swabs, which were in short supply and would be necessary to combat COVID-19,” the complaint says.
In response to questions, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley did not directly address Bright’s allegations, saying in a statement Tuesday: “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.”
In addition to their sharp disagreements over coronavirus, Bright alleges in the complaint that he opposed moves by Kadlec to award contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to several small pharmaceutical companies represented by a friend of Kadlec’s who was working as industry consultant.
In November, he opposed a $100-million proposal to fund an Ebola treatment developed “by a longtime friend of Dr. Kadlec” at Emory University in Atlanta and marketed by a small Miami-based firm called Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, according to the complaint. Last month, the consortium again sought Health and Human Services funding, claiming the drug showed promise against coronavirus, even though no human trials had been conducted, the complaint says.
Ridgeback and Emory did not return calls seeking comment.
The 89-page complaint documents repeated efforts by Bright in the first weeks of 2020 to urge Azar, Kadlec and other administration officials to quickly mobilize to secure masks and other protective equipment for the U.S. medical system to prepare for an outbreak of the virus here.
Widespread shortages of protective equipment for medical workers and testing supplies have persisted throughout the coronavirus outbreak, hampering the U.S. medical response and complicating current efforts to end stay-at-home orders across the country.
As early as Jan. 18, just days after coronavirus cases began to be recorded outside China, Bright pushed Kadlec to begin convening special disaster-planning meetings to coordinate a response across the federal government, according to the complaint.
Kadlec wrote back in an email cited in the complaint that he was “not sure if that is a time sensitive urgency.”
When Bright relayed warnings from mask manufacturers that they were having trouble getting through to U.S. government officials about the need to make production plans, he was similarly rebuffed, he said.
Even as senior health officials finally began to acknowledge the supply issues, Kadlec and others assured the White House in a Feb. 14 briefing that there were no immediate supply-chain issues, Bright’s complaint alleges.
Bright also notes that his skepticism about the anti-malaria drugs touted by Trump antagonized senior administration officials.
“In an apparent effort to score a short-term political victory for the Administration during the escalating health crisis,” Kadlec’s office “pressured BARDA to promote the malaria drug chloroquine,” the complaint says.
Bright said he was ordered on March 23 by Health and Human Services general counsel Bob Charrow, in a directive from the White House, “to drop everything and make the chloroquine donated by Bayer widely available to the American public.”
Bayer had donated chloroquine to the government for for use in treating coronavirus. The company got the drug from factories in India and Pakistan, and it was brought into the U.S. without inspection by the Food and Drug Administration, which concerned Bright, the complaint says.
On March 29, at Bright’s urging, the FDA issued an authorization for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, limiting its use by licensed healthcare providers to treat certain patients who could not otherwise participate in a randomized, controlled trial.
After Trump again touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 during a White House news conference on April 4, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir instructed Kadlec and other federal officials to mobilize the nation’s supply chain to “flood NY and NJ with treatment courses [of hydroxychloroquine],” according to an email included in the complaint.
“Bright felt powerless to protect the public from this potentially toxic chemical that HHS, at President Trump’s insistence, was touting as a safe treatment,” the complaint notes.
Amid growing signs that hydroxychloraquine may endanger patients, The FDA has since issued a warning against the drug’s use outside hospitals and other clinical settings.