Rick Bright, Bloomberg via Getty Images

De­posed BAR­DA chief blasts Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on pro­mot­ing un­proven drugs as Covid-19 panacea: 'Science — not pol­i­tics or crony­ism — has to lead the way'

A day af­ter news broke that the head of BAR­DA, the gov­ern­ment agency at the cen­ter of a na­tion­al ef­fort to de­vel­op vac­cines and treat­ments for Covid-19, had been re­moved from his post, the now for­mer di­rec­tor is speak­ing out against the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, say­ing that he was forced out for re­sist­ing po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to fund un­proven drugs that have been pushed by the pres­i­dent and his al­lies.

In a lengthy state­ment first ob­tained by The New York TimesRick Bright said that he was re­moved for re­sist­ing pres­sure to in­vest the agency’s re­sources in­to hy­drox­y­chloro­quine, a malar­ia treat­ment that Pres­i­dent Trump has pushed over the ad­vice of pub­lic health of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the NIH, who say it is un­proven and in some cas­es can be harm­ful. Bright’s de­par­ture was first re­port­ed by STAT. 

“I be­lieve this trans­fer was in re­sponse to my in­sis­tence that the gov­ern­ment in­vest the bil­lions of dol­lars al­lo­cat­ed by Con­gress to ad­dress the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic in­to safe and sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly vet­ted so­lu­tions, and not in drugs, vac­cines and oth­er tech­nolo­gies that lack sci­en­tif­ic mer­it,” Bright said.

“I am speak­ing out be­cause to com­bat this dead­ly virus, sci­ence — not pol­i­tics or crony­ism — has to lead the way.”

A lit­tle-known gov­ern­ment agency that was formed in the af­ter­math of 9/11 and the an­thrax scare, the Bio­med­ical Ad­vance Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­i­ty has emerged as the lead­ing agency fund­ing the ef­forts to de­vel­op treat­ments and vac­cine against Covid-19. Last week, the agency an­nounced an up-to $483 mil­lion agree­ment with Mod­er­na to help ush­er its vac­cine to ap­proval and scale up man­u­fac­tur­ing. That came af­ter an agree­ment with J&J to put $1 bil­lion — split be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the phar­ma com­pa­ny — be­hind their vac­cine ef­fort. The agency put out a call for ap­pli­ca­tions for fund­ing for drugs and oth­er med­ical prod­ucts for use against Covid-19 in March.

Bright’s sud­den de­par­ture yes­ter­day – com­ing just af­ter Con­gress had al­lo­cat­ed new funds to the agency – shocked pub­lic health ex­perts and again raised ques­tions about po­lit­i­cal med­dling that have cloud­ed the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the cri­sis. In­fec­tious dis­ease ex­perts around the ad­min­is­tra­tion, most no­tably NI­AID chief An­tho­ny Fau­ci, have pushed back against the pres­i­dent’s fre­quent en­dorse­ment of the malar­ia drug, but be­fore Bright, none had in­di­cat­ed they were pres­sured to di­vert fed­er­al mon­ey to sup­port the un­proven com­pound.

Asked about Bright’s state­ment at Wednes­day’s White House press brief­ing, Trump said: “I nev­er heard of him. If a guy says he was pushed out of a job, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. You’d have to hear the oth­er side. I don’t know who he is.”

Bright, who joined the agency in 2010 and has led it since 2016, was moved to an un­spec­i­fied po­si­tion at the NIH de­vel­op­ing Covid-19 di­ag­nos­tics. We’ve re­pro­duced his state­ment in full be­low:

WASH­ING­TON – “Yes­ter­day, I was re­moved from my po­si­tions as the Di­rec­tor of the Bio­med­ical Ad­vanced Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­i­ty (BAR­DA) and HHS Deputy As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary for Pre­pared­ness and Re­sponse by the Ad­min­is­tra­tion and in­vol­un­tar­i­ly trans­ferred to a more lim­it­ed and less im­pact­ful po­si­tion at the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health. I be­lieve this trans­fer was in re­sponse to my in­sis­tence that the gov­ern­ment in­vest the bil­lions of dol­lars al­lo­cat­ed by Con­gress to ad­dress the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic in­to safe and sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly vet­ted so­lu­tions, and not in drugs, vac­cines and oth­er tech­nolo­gies that lack sci­en­tif­ic mer­it. I am speak­ing out be­cause to com­bat this dead­ly virus, sci­ence – not pol­i­tics or crony­ism – has to lead the way.

“I have spent my en­tire ca­reer in vac­cine de­vel­op­ment, in the gov­ern­ment with CDC and BAR­DA and al­so in the biotech­nol­o­gy in­dus­try. My pro­fes­sion­al back­ground has pre­pared me for a mo­ment like this – to con­front and de­feat a dead­ly virus that threat­ens Amer­i­cans and peo­ple around the globe. To this point, I have led the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to in­vest in the best sci­ence avail­able to com­bat the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, this re­sult­ed in clash­es with HHS po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing crit­i­cism for my proac­tive ef­forts to in­vest ear­ly in vac­cines and sup­plies crit­i­cal to sav­ing Amer­i­can lives. I al­so re­sist­ed ef­forts to fund po­ten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous drugs pro­mot­ed by those with po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions.

“Specif­i­cal­ly, and con­trary to mis­guid­ed di­rec­tives, I lim­it­ed the broad use of chloro­quine and hy­drox­y­chloro­quine, pro­mot­ed by the Ad­min­is­tra­tion as a panacea, but which clear­ly lack sci­en­tif­ic mer­it. While I am pre­pared to look at all op­tions and to think “out­side the box” for ef­fec­tive treat­ments, I right­ly re­sist­ed ef­forts to pro­vide an un­proven drug on de­mand to the Amer­i­can pub­lic. I in­sist­ed that these drugs be pro­vid­ed on­ly to hos­pi­tal­ized pa­tients with con­firmed COVID-19 while un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a physi­cian.  These drugs have po­ten­tial­ly se­ri­ous risks as­so­ci­at­ed with them, in­clud­ing in­creased mor­tal­i­ty ob­served in some re­cent stud­ies in pa­tients with COVID-19.

“Sidelin­ing me in the mid­dle of this pan­dem­ic and plac­ing pol­i­tics and crony­ism ahead of sci­ence puts lives at risk and stunts na­tion­al ef­forts to safe­ly and ef­fec­tive­ly ad­dress this ur­gent pub­lic health cri­sis.

“I will re­quest that the In­spec­tor Gen­er­al of the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices in­ves­ti­gate the man­ner in which this Ad­min­is­tra­tion has politi­cized the work of BAR­DA and has pres­sured me and oth­er con­sci­en­tious sci­en­tists to fund com­pa­nies with po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions as well as ef­forts that lack sci­en­tif­ic mer­it. Rush­ing blind­ly to­wards un­proven drugs can be dis­as­trous and re­sult in count­less more deaths. Sci­ence, in ser­vice to the health and safe­ty of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, must al­ways trump pol­i­tics.

“I am very grate­ful for the bi­par­ti­san sup­port from Con­gress and their con­fi­dence in my lead­er­ship of BAR­DA as re­flect­ed in the gen­er­ous ap­pro­pri­a­tion to BAR­DA in the CARES 3 Act. It is my sin­cere hope that the ded­i­cat­ed pro­fes­sion­als at BAR­DA and through­out HHS will be al­lowed to use the best sci­en­tif­ic acu­men and in­tegri­ty to con­tin­ue their ef­forts to stop the pan­dem­ic with­out po­lit­i­cal pres­sure or dis­trac­tions. Amer­i­cans de­serve no less.”

Dr. Bright’s at­tor­neys, De­bra Katz and Lisa Banks, state that “the Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­moval of Dr. Bright from his po­si­tion as di­rec­tor of BAR­DA is re­tal­i­a­tion plain and sim­ple. The re­sults from the Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­fusal to lis­ten to the ex­perts and to side­line those like Dr. Bright who point out any er­rors in the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse will con­tin­ue to be cat­a­stroph­ic for the Amer­i­can peo­ple. We will re­quest that the Of­fice of Spe­cial Coun­sel seek a stay of Dr. Bright’s ter­mi­na­tion and that Dr. Bright be per­mit­ted to re­main in his po­si­tion pend­ing the OSC and IG’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of this un­law­ful forced trans­fer.”

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