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 Times, Rick 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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