As his superiors at Health and Human Services claimed the coronavirus posed little risk to the public, Hutchinson native Rick Bright in January warned of imminent crisis; in whistleblower complaint, he documents pressure to promote dangerous drugs touted by president as potential cure for COVID-19
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TOPEKA — A Hutchinson native who began sounding alarms in mid-January over the need for more N95 masks, testing supplies and other equipment that would be needed in the imminent pandemic is scheduled to testify before Congress this week, days after filing a damning whistleblower report.
Rick Bright says he was reassigned as director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for resisting pressure to promote dangerous drugs touted by President Donald Trump as possible cures for COVID-19, pushing for a more aggressive response to the pandemic, and questioning the meritless awarding of contracts to the president’s political cronies.
On Friday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel moved to temporarily block Bright’s departure from BARDA based on evidence provided in his 89-page complaint.
Bright was removed from his position on April 20 after confirming for a journalist the dangers of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and providing supporting documentation that included email exchanges among Health and Human Services officials.
"Bright hoped that by shining a light on HHS’s reckless and dangerous push to make these drug available, American lives would be saved," his attorneys wrote in the complaint.
The internationally recognized expert in immunology, therapeutic intervention, vaccine development and pandemic preparedness had served as director of BARDA since November 2016. Before arriving at HHS in 2010, he worked in the biotech industry and was recruited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 to develop testing to combat avian flu.
In late March, Congress passed a massive spending package for COVID-19 response that allocated $3.5 billion directly to BARDA. Bright’s complaint asserts the appropriation intensified hostilities between Bright and his HHS boss, Robert Kadlec, by making it more difficult for Kadlec to siphon funds for companies that have connections to the Trump administration.
As the president and HHS leaders promoted hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, as a potential cure for COVID-19 in an apparent attempt to score a short-term political victory, Bright resisted pressure to accept or invest in the drug.
On March 23, HHS general counsel Bob Charrow ordered Bright to drop everything and make a supply of drugs donated by Bayer available to the American people. In a scheme detailed in Bright’s complaint, the goal was to establish a nationwide software system that would deliver the medicine to patients without them consulting a physician. The software platform would be built by Oracle, whose co-founder is a prominent Trump donor and helped convince the president the drug could be used to treat COVID-19.
"Bright felt powerless to protect the public from this potentially toxic chemical that HHS, at President Trump’s insistence, was touting as a safe treatment," the complaint said.
Then, the journalist called to ask about the dangers of the drug. Feeling he had no other choice, and that he had a clear obligation to warn the American public, Bright confirmed the dangers and lack of scientific support for the president’s claims.
The leak turned out to be the final straw for superiors who for months had been at odds with Bright over the administration’s handling of the response. Bright was reassigned to a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health in a transfer described by an HHS spokesperson as a "bold new plan" to defeat COVID-19.
Bright said he took notice in December of the strange new respiratory illness in Wuhan, China, which was followed by a CDC advisory on Jan. 8 and warning by the World Health Organization on Jan. 11. For the next six weeks, as HHS secretary Alex Azar assured the president and Congress the risk of the virus was low, Bright repeatedly warned about the severe shortage of supplies that could cripple the nation’s ability to handle a crisis he viewed as inevitable.
On Jan. 18, Bright pushed for senior meetings to coordinate the government’s response. He was told the threat wasn’t time sensitive.
Bright specifically raised alarms about the scarcity of N95 masks, swabs and chemicals needed for testing, and syringes and needles that would be needed if a vaccine could be developed. In a Jan. 25 email, Bright warned about the "need to consider options here also before things are gone." Higher-ups decided Bright no longer was welcome at briefings on the coronavirus.
A day later, sharing his frustration, a colleague responded: "I think we’re in deep s."
Bright continued to push officials to place orders and ramp up production of N95 masks to ensure health care workers and first responders would be adequately protected. Officials charged with reviewing the supply chain pushed back, insisting he was wrong. They decided instead to monitor supply and, if needed, ask the CDC to update guidelines to tell people who don’t need masks not to buy them.
"I can't believe that you can sit there and say that with a straight face," Bright said in the Feb. 7 meeting. "Do you really believe that changing a CDC guideline to tell people not to wear masks would reduce the panic people would feel once this virus spreads?"
Bright helped author a Feb. 9 memo delivered to Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others stressing the need to halt the export of N95 masks and ramp up production in the United States. The memo also called for funding of a "Manhattan project" for vaccine development.
The shocking response: There were no immediate problems with supply, despite the acknowledgment that the United States would fall well short of the six billion respirators it would need if there were a pandemic.
Kadlec, Bright’s boss, told the Senate on Feb. 25 only 300 million N95 masks were needed.
By March, Bright had anticipated the looming shortage of swabs and chemical reagents needed for COVID-19 testing. He attempted to brief Kadlec on the shortage on March 13.
"Kadlec aggressively shot him down," according to Bright’s complaint, "and in a hostile tone said, 'I don’t care about swabs. I don’t want to hear about swabs. Move on.’ "
Circumventing his boss, Bright instead partnered with the military to transport 25 million swabs from overseas.
Bright also alerted leadership to the need for more needles and syringes for when a vaccine is available. HHS currently has 15 million needles and syringes on hand, or 2% of the required amount, and still hasn’t placed an order for more.
"There is a limited inventory in the supply chain," Bright wrote in a March 12 email. "It could take 2+ years to make enough to satisfy the US vaccine needs for a pandemic."