WASHINGTON — Rick Bright, the U.S. official who was ousted this week from a post atop an agency charged with developing vaccines, has decided to put the Trump administration on trial. The charge: politicizing science.
In Bright’s telling, he is the first clear casualty of a White House war on the scientific process, unceremoniously demoted for refusing to invest federal money in an untested coronavirus therapy that President Trump has nonetheless embraced. He alleges, too, that he had to resist “efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections,” in a statement first reported by the New York Times.
But Bright’s story is complicated by what multiple sources described to STAT as long-simmering tensions between him and his former direct boss, Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response Bob Kadlec, a Trump appointee. The sources, a former Trump administration official and an industry source with close ties to BARDA, said Kadlec had been unhappy with Bright’s performance for months.
Trump, asked about Bright’s statement Wednesday, said, “A guy says he was pushed out of a job. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. I don’t know who he is.” HHS did not immediately comment on Bright’s ouster or his allegations.
For weeks, there have been signs that the Trump administration is politicizing science: President Trump has repeatedly extolled the virtues of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. But the drug has not been tested as a Covid-19 medication in a placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial, the scientific gold standard for determining a drug’s efficacy. Some anecdotal evidence has even shown that the drug could potentially do more harm than good for Covid-19 patients.
Bright cited the drug in his statement, but the former federal official specifically questioned Bright’s assertion that he had resisted the broad use of hydroxychloroquine.
As Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, Bright was directly involved in the government’s March decision to accept donations of both hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine from the drug makers Novartis and Bayer — and the former Trump administration source said he supported those acquisitions in internal communications.
He also played a role in the Food and Drug Administration’s controversial decision to issue a so-called Emergency Use Authorization for the products, which allowed the drugs to be added to the national stockpile. The FDA’s authorization is addressed to Bright directly — a clear sign that he requested the authorization as the BARDA director.
Kadlec, the sources also said, had long been unhappy with BARDA’s slow pace for funding new projects.
This week, Bright, the BARDA director since 2016, was reassigned to a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health, a move first reported by STAT. There, he is supposed to be working on an initiative related to point-of-care diagnostics.
Bright’s new lawyers, however, have requested a stay of his reassignment, pending investigations from the HHS Office of Special Counsel and the HHS Inspector General that they are also requesting.
Already, those calls have been echoed by Democrats in Congress: Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Thursday called for HHS inspector general to investigate Bright’s ouster, arguing it “raises serious questions whether the Trump administration retaliated against him for advocating for science and against Trump’s misinformation.”
Lev Facher contributed reporting.