The doctor in charge of the federal agency overseeing research into a coronavirus vaccine said on Wednesday he was forced out of the job after questioning the efficacy of an anti-malarial drug favored by the president.
Dr. Rick Bright was “involuntarily transferred” last week from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to a role with fewer responsibilities at the National Institutes of Health after advocating for more stringent study of hydroxychloroquine, according to a statement from his lawyer, as first reported by The New York Times.
“Science—not politics or cronyism—has to lead the way,” Bright said in the statement. “Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics.”
Bright has served as head of BARDA since 2016. Prior to running the agency, he led its Influenza and Emerging Infectious Diseases Division, according to the medical publication STAT, and worked at private sector biotechnology companies.
During Wednesday’s White House coronavirus briefing, President Donald Trump said of Bright, “Never heard of him.” Asked whether Bright was pushed out, Trump said, “Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. I don’t know who he is.”
A spokeswoman for HHS told the The New York Times on Wednesday night, “Dr. Bright has departed BARDA to NIH where he’ll work on development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms. As it relates to chloroquine, it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA.”
Bright has hired whistleblower lawyer Debra Katz and her firm, which represented Christine Blasey Ford and other women who have accused government officials of sexual misconduct. He said on Wednesday he would request that the inspector general of HHS investigate his dismissal.
“Dr. Bright has not been given any information about his new role at NIH,” a source familiar with the ousted doctor told The Daily Beast. “He will fight to return to his position leading BARDA, where he can continue to use his vast experience and skills to work to end this pandemic.”
Another source who works with Bright told The Daily Beast that Bright would comply with any congressional efforts to investigate his removal from his post.
Although the president and his allies touted hydroxychloroquine as a potential cure for the coronavirus, studies now show that it has little effect and can even worsen outcomes and increase the risk of death.
Bright painted a grim picture of his efforts to fund vaccine research, describing clashes with HHS leadership and others in government who wished to “fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.” Congress tripled BARDA’s budget as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package passed last month.
He called advice from the president to use chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus symptoms “misguided directives.”
“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,” he wrote.
He said he was prepared to think “outside the box” when it came to potential treatments but resisted efforts “to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public” and instead insisted that such drugs only be provided to hospitalized patients with the coronavirus who could be supervised by a physician.
“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,” he wrote.
STAT reported on Tuesday that Bright had recently clashed with Bob Kadlec, the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, which has oversight over BARDA.
In a statement accompanying Bright’s comments, his lawyers called the demotion “retaliation plain and simple.” They said they would ask the Office of Special Counsel to seek a stay of his termination, adding that Bright should be able to stay in his position until investigations are complete.