HHS pushes back on ousted official’s retaliation claims, says Rick Bright was proponent of hydroxychloroquine
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The Department of Health and Human Services pushed back on ousted BARDA director Rick Bright’s testimony and whistleblower complaint Thursday, accusing him of “politicizing the response” to coronavirus.
Bright has said he was removed for opposing unproven hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment, but HHS — in comments to reporters Thursday — claimed Bright was actually a proponent of the drug.
Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), went before Congress Thursday warning that the coronavirus pandemic will only get worse without a proper plan, blaming the Trump administration for not taking his warnings seriously.
Bright was removed from his BARDA position in April and reassigned to a post at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but he has yet to show up at that post.
“Rick Bright was transferred from his role as BARDA director to lead a bold new $1 billion testing program at NIH, critical to saving lives and reopening America,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement Thursday. “Mr. Bright has not yet shown up for work, but continues to collect his $285,010 salary, while using his taxpayer-funded medical leave to work with partisan attorneys who are politicizing the response to COVID-19.”
Bright has criticized HHS leadership for their response to the pandemic and claimed that he was relegated to a lower position because he disagreed with the Trump administration’s push to tout “drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.”
“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest funding allocated to BARDA [the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority] 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 in his written testimony.
President Trump throughout March and April touted the anti-malarial drug as having “very encouraging” results in early trials.
HHS said Bright was the one who pushed for serious consideration of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, praising his team for acquiring the drugs, and BARDA, under Bright’s leadership, considered the drugs “part of the therapeutic pipeline for COVID-19.”
“Ultimately, Rick Bright requested, and FDA issued, an emergency use authorization (EUA) for hydroxychloroquine that provided for use of hydroxycloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19,” according to HHS.
An analysis of the use of the drug last month to treat COVID-19 patients in U.S. veterans hospitals found no benefit to using the drug and that there were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care.
The nationwide study was not a rigorous experiment. But with 368 patients, it’s the largest look so far at hydroxychloroquine with or without the antibiotic azithromycin for COVID-19.
Bright in his complaint said officials at HHS “refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public,” before speaking to a reporter who was working on a story about the drug. But HHS said Bright admitted himself he did not report his concerns under any available procedure, such as a report to the Office of Inspector General.
Bright also said the Trump administration rejected his warnings on COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. He said he “acted with urgency” to address the growing spread of COVID-19 after the World Health Organization issued a warning in January.
HHS said Bright was limited in his role as head of BARDA and did not have visibility into the work being done to fight the virus by HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other components of HHS and the administration. “Rick Bright’s assumption that others were not concerned with and working on various workstreams related to COVID-19 preparedness is bizarre and false.”
Trump directed the department to undertake an initiative to dramatically shorten the time for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to HHS. A similar initiative was implemented at NIH to expand diagnostics of the virus.
“Instead of supporting the latter initiative in the new role to which Mr. Bright was transferred, Rick Bright has chosen to stay home, draw his $285,010 taxpayer-funded salary, and politicize the response to COVID-19 for his own personal benefit,” the statement said.
HHS also denied claims by Bright that it had failed to act on remdesivir, an anti-viral medication which in a trial led by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease saw coronavirus patients’ recovery time improve by 31 percent. The department said it had sought to obtain the drug since February and is now helping manage the distribution of it after the FDA gave it emergency use authorization.