WASHINGTON — Rick Bright, the ousted head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, has filed a formal whistleblower complaint alleging he was involuntarily transferred to a lower position at the National Institutes of Health because he raised concerns about the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response and about nepotism in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Among the most explosive accusations: Bright’s complaint alleges he was pressured by HHS Secretary Alex Azar to allow the distribution of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, unproven as a Covid-19 treatment that has nevertheless been championed by President Trump. According to the complaint, Bright worked “frantically,” alongside top Food and Drug Administration official Janet Woodcock, to resist a plan to distribute the drug widely.
Woodcock, according to the complaint, urged Bright directly to issue a so-called emergency use authorization that would allow the drug to be added to the national stockpile, but not distributed widely.
“The HHS clinical and regulatory expert teams worked frantically for 48 hours without sleep to come up with a plan that would ensure the greatest level of safety for people who received this drug,” the complaint states. “Dr. Bright and Dr. Woodcock ultimately prevailed upon their colleagues, and the FDA assisted BARDA in drafting an EUA request and provided it to Dr. Bright on the evening of March 28, 2020.”
Bright also alleges his decision to speak to a reporter about the dangers of hydroxychloroquine may have played a role in his ultimate ousting.
“HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar and Dr. Kadlec, were already gunning for Dr. Bright’s removal,” the complaint states. “But they chose to remove him as BARDA Director within days of publication of the article about chloroquine because they suspected that he was the source.”
As the head of BARDA, Bright played a leading role in doling out government funding for infectious disease treatments. STAT first reported on April 21 that Bright had been unwillingly reassigned to a narrower position at the National Institutes of Health. Bright will also testify before a subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee on May 14, an attorney for Bright announced Tuesday.
Bright’s 89-page complaint, which also includes 60 pages of exhibits, details several other alleged clashes between him and HHS leadership over the administration’s Covid-19 response.
Bright alleges that even in January, he was repeatedly pressing the department to address looming supply chain issues, including for N95 masks, but his complaints fell on deaf ears. Bright alleges he was eventually cut out of the administration’s Covid-19 response meetings.
“Lack of leadership and action by [other HHS officials] has placed the health and safety of all Americans at risk of not being protected from the deadly coronavirus even when a vaccine becomes available,” the complaint states.
The explosive complaint also contains a number of highly detailed accusations of nepotism surrounding Bob Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS. The complaint alleges Kadlec repeatedly pressured Bright over the course of a number of years to fund scientifically dubious projects connected to personal friends.
The complaint alleges that a small circle of biotech companies, including Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, Alvogen, Partner Therapeutics, and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics got special access to Kadlec through an industry consultant at Tiber Creek Partners.
The complaint also alleges that Bright was made aware that Aeolus, in particular, has connections to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
Congress’ March decision to appropriate $3.5 billion directly to BARDA further strained Bright’s relationship with Kadlec, the complaint alleges.
According to the complaint, Bright appealed directly to lawmakers for more funding to respond to the coronavirus after Kadlec tried to sideline his agency, a move that angered Kadlec. The complaint says Bright told several members of Congress, including Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Chris Coons (D-Conn.), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) “that, among other things, HHS leadership delayed and withheld money from BARDA allocated by Congress, which hampered diagnostics, drug and vaccine development.”