BARDA chief leaves position as agency enters unprecedented vaccine campaign, raising questions about federal Covid-19 response
Rick Bright, the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and a leading researcher on vaccines and antivirals, is no longer running the agency.
Bright’s sudden departure, first reported by STAT, comes just as the agency, commonly called BARDA, has been thrust into the national spotlight as it leads a nationwide effort to develop vaccines and treatments for SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes 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.
Bright will still have a role in the Covid-19 response, but it won’t be in developing drugs or vaccines. He will move into an unspecified position at the NIH to join an effort to scale up diagnostic testing for the virus, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees BARDA, said in an emailed statement. Gary Disbrow, Bright’s former deputy, will serve as acting chief.
“Bright will transfer the skills he has applied as Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to the National Institutes of Health, as part of a bold plan to accelerate the development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms,” the spokesperson said. “Dr. Bright brings extensive experience and expertise in facilitating powerful public-private partnerships that advance the health and well-being of the American people.”
The abrupt shakeup shocked those who have long watched and worked with the agency and who wondered what precipitated a major leadership shift in the midst of one of the worst biological threats the US has faced in BARDA’s 14-year-history. Although historically a small agency, the most recent stimulus package allocated an additional $1 billion for Covid-19 work. Bright has led it since 2016.
“I would like to know why,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, told Endpoints News. “It’s hard to know what the implications are. Leadership changes in the middle of the crisis of are often more difficult. I hope it doesn’t diminish BARDA’s role.”
The move also renewed questions about the role politics may be playing in the government’s response to the pandemic. Already, the FDA has faced criticism over its decision to authorize use of a malaria drug long advocated by President Trump over the objection of his top scientific advisors and approve a clinical trial for a cell therapy pushed by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
The director of BARDA is not a Senate-confirmed position. It answers directly to the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response.
“I cannot imagine anything good coming from this loss of leadership at a crucial time in a plague,” Art Caplan, founder of NYU’s Division of Medical Ethics, said in an email to Endpoints. “But I do not know why he left. Presuming politics then it is morally reprehensible and irresponsible in the extreme.”
Bright, who previously worked in biotech and has advised the WHO, joined the agency in 2010. Formed in 2006, in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax scare, BARDA was designed to protect the US against bio-threats, including bioterrorism and potential natural outbreaks. Although little known before the Covid-19 pandemic, over the ensuing 14 years they handed out government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to build vaccines and treatment for pandemic flu, Ebola and the Zika virus, among others.
Last year, two of those efforts came to fruition with the approval of a smallpox antiviral and an Ebola vaccine. Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb, who entered his role shortly after Bright, praised his leadership during those efforts.
At BARDA, Rick Bright was an outstanding partner to me, to FDA, and to our shared public health goals; including the approval of a historic treatment for smallpox and a vaccine for Ebola. I look forward to his continued contributions to advance the health and safety of our nation
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) April 21, 2020
The agency emerged as a key player early in the Covid-19 outbreak, handing out smaller contracts to longtime partners Regeneron and Sanofi in February before calling for new applications and eventually promising around $1 billion.
Disbrow, the new acting director, joined the agency months after its inception in December 2006 and began working on the smallpox vaccine program. A former assistant professor of oncology and pathology at Georgetown Medical Center, he worked on an HPV vaccine and received grants for developing new vaccine technology from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He has overseen the budget for Project BioShield, a long-running government effort to purchase vaccines for use in a potential bio-terror attack.
Matthew Watson, a senior analyst for the Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that while the sudden change could interrupt the agency’s work, Disbrow was well-suited for the role.
“Leadership transitions can be disruptive, and for this to be happening in the midst of a pandemic certainly isn’t ideal,” Watson said in an email to Endpoints. “That said, it’s reassuring that Dr. Gary Disbrow will be taking on the role of BARDA director on an acting basis. He’s well-known in the community and is a veteran of MCM R&D.”
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