Virus whistle-blower Rick Bright says Trump Administration steered contracts to cronies

May 7, 2020

A federal scientist who says he was ousted from his job after he argued against the president’s recommendation of an unproven coronavirus treatment—a malaria drug called hydroxychloroquine—is fighting back. This week, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency.

Rick Bright, an expert in vaccine development who was director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) until his removal in April, said in a formal whistle-blower complaint that he had been protesting “cronyism” and contract abuse since 2017.

Indeed, Bright claimed on May 5 that top Trump Administration officials repeatedly had pressured him to steer millions of dollars in contracts to the clients of a well-connected pharmaceutical consultant, The New York Times reported.

Questionable contracts have gone to “companies with political connections to the administration,” the complaint said, including a drug company tied to a friend of Jared Kushner’s, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser,

Even more damningly, the complaint said Dr. Bright was retaliated against by his superiors, who pushed him out because of “his efforts to prioritize science and safety over political expediency.”

A lawyer for Dr. Bright, Debra Katz, said he felt a “moral obligation” to get the word out that the administration was pressing to stockpile an unproven and potentially dangerous coronavirus treatment, which was supplied by drugmakers in India and Pakistan and had not been certified by the Food and Drug Administration.

The 89-page complaint, obtained by the Times, also said Dr. Bright “encountered opposition” from department superiors — including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex  Azar —when he pushed as early as January for the necessary resources to develop drugs and vaccines to counter the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

According to the news outlet, the report provides a window into the inner workings of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a tiny agency created in 2006 as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It partners with industry in developing “medical countermeasures” that can be stockpiled by the federal government to combat biological or chemical attacks and pandemic threats.

BARDA has spent billions of dollars on contracts with dozens of different suppliers, including major pharmaceutical companies and smaller biotechnology firms.

Both allies and Dr. Bright say his nearly four-year tenure as the head of BARDA was marked by clashes with his superiors—especially Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response —and tension with some industry executives. Dr. Bright conceded in the complaint that those clashes came to a head after he leaked information on the dispute over the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to a reporter from Reuters.

The complaint says top Department of Health and Human Services officials, including Dr. Kadlec, who oversees the strategic national stockpile, overruled scientific experts while awarding contracts to firms represented by the consultant, John Clerici, a founder and principal of DC-based Tiber Creek Partners—which Clerici has said “has been at the forefront in the creation of the public health preparedness sector, including helping large pharmaceutical and emerging biotechnology companies develop creative approaches … to fund the development of biotechnology for emergency disease and engineered threats.” .

Clerici was instrumental, along with Dr. Kadlec, in writing the legislation that created BARDA.

“Dr. Bright was vocal about his concerns regarding the inappropriate and possibly illegal communications between Mr. Clerici, Dr. Kadlec, Mr. Shuy and Mr. Meekins,” the complaint stated, referring to Bryan Shuy and Chris Meekins, two other department officials.

A spokesperson for the department, Caitlin Oakley, did not address the complaints about officials there, when approached by the Times. “Dr. Bright was transferred to N.I.H. to work on diagnostics testing—critical to combating COVID-19—where he has been entrusted to spend upward of $1 billion to advance that effort,” she said in an statement emailed to the news outlet.

She added,“We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor.”

Dr. Bright initially was offered a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health to work on a new “Shark Tank”-style program to develop coronavirus treatments, but Katz told reporters he “has no role” and did not receive his last paycheck, the Times said.

Clerici said he “unequivocally” denied any wrongdoing, adding: “It’s sad that during a pandemic, Dr. Bright and his team have chosen to distract people like Dr. Kadlec, who are critical to the response, with politically motivated allegations. The record is clear that his allegations are false and will be proven so.”

Research contact: @nytimes

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