By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR, MICHAEL BALSAMO and COLLEEN LONG Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A government scientist was ousted after the Trump administration ignored his dire warnings about COVID-19 and a malaria drug President Donald Trump was pushing for the coronavirus despite scant evidence it helped, according to a whistleblower complaint Tuesday.
Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, filed the complaint Tuesday with the Office of Special Counsel, a government agency responsible for whistleblower complaints.
He alleges he was reassigned to a lesser role because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug favored by Trump. He said the Trump administration wanted to “flood” hot spots in New York and New Jersey with the drug.
Bright’s complaint comes as the Trump administration faces criticism over its response to the pandemic, including testing and supplies of ventilators, masks and other equipment to try to stem the spread. To date, there have been nearly 1.2 million confirmed cases in the United States and more than 70,000 deaths.
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.
But he said he “encountered resistance from HHS leadership, including Health and Human Services Secretary (Alex) Azar, who appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic event.”
Bright alleges in the complaint that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services tried to promote hydroxychloroquine “as a panacea.” The officials also “demanded that New York and New Jersey be ‘flooded’ with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA,” the complaint says.
But Bright opposed broad use of the drug, arguing the scientific evidence wasn’t there to back up its use in coronavirus patients. He felt an urgent need to tell the public there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to support using the drugs for COVID-19 patients, the complaint states.
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors against prescribing the drug except in hospitals and research studies. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side effects among coronavirus patients taking hydroxychloroquine or the related drug chloroquine.
The decades-old drugs, also prescribed for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause a number of side effects, including heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage.
In late January, Bright said he made an effort to ramp up federal procurement of N95 respirator masks, after having heard warnings that a global shortage could imperil first-responders.
But he said his boss, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Preparedness Robert Kadlec, gave short shrift to the warnings during a meeting Jan. 23.
At another meeting that day, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Kadlec “responded with surprise at (Bright’s) dire predictions and urgency, and asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out,” the whistleblower complaint said.
Publicly, HHS was saying it had all the masks that would be needed.
Bright found an ally in White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who was also urgently concerned about the virus.
The complaint described a series of contacts with Navarro’s office that led to a meeting between Bright and the trade official on at the White House on a Saturday early in February. Bright said his boss, Kadlec was not pleased.
“Navarro clearly shared (Bright’s) concerns about the potential devastation the United States would face from the coronavirus and asked (Bright) to identify the supply chain and medical countermeasures most critical to address at that time in order to save lives.”
Navarro’s memos to top White House officials raised alarms even as Trump was publicly assuring Americans that the outbreak was under control.
Bright felt officials had “refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public” and spoke to a reporter who was working on a story about the drug.
He said he had to tell the public about the lack of science backing up its use, despite the drug being pushed by the president as press briefings, to protect people from what he believed “constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” the complaint says.
“As the death toll mounted exponentially each day, Dr. Bright concluded that he had a moral obligation to the American public, including those vulnerable as a result of illness from COVID-19, to protect it from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” the complaint says.
On Jan. 20, according to the complaint, the WHO held an emergency call to discuss the novel coronavirus. It was attended by many HHS officials, and which WHO officials advised that “the outbreak is a big problem.”
Trump has accused the U.N. agency of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus after it emerged in China and said he would cut funding.
Bright’s agency works to guard against pandemics and emergent infectious diseases, and is working to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Top officials also pressured him to steer contracts to a client of a lobbyist, he reported.
Bright said he repeatedly clashed with leadership about the role played by pharmacy industry lobbyist John Clerici in drug contracts. As he tried to push a contract extension of a contract for one of his clients Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, Clerici said the company’s CEO was a friend of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
In the complaint, Bright says he wants to returned to his position as the director and a full investigation.
When Bright’s plans to file a complaint surfaced last month, HHS confirmed that Bright is no longer at the BARDA agency, but did not address his allegations of political interference in the COVID-19 response.