WASHINGTON — Rick Bright, the ousted federal vaccine expert, amended his whistleblower complaint Thursday against the Trump administration, adding new allegations that health secretary Alex Azar is leading an effort to sabotage his new job at the National Institutes of Health.
Those allegations are based almost entirely on Bright’s secondhand account of a conversation between his replacement at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and an unnamed employee at that agency.
Bright, who played a central role in helping companies develop coronavirus vaccines, therapeutics, and tests as head of BARDA, was suddenly reassigned to a narrower position at the NIH in April. He is currently in a legal fight with Azar to gain his old job back. He alleges he was ousted from his role because he sounded the alarm over the administration’s lack of preparedness to respond to the pandemic and alleged cronyism between HHS officials and industry.
The new, amended complaint is heavy on allegations and light on details: It largely centers around a conversation Bright had with an unnamed BARDA employee who relayed, to Bright, a conversation that that employee had with the new acting BARDA director, Gary Disbrow. During the conversation, Disbrow allegedly warned the employee to be careful in interactions with Bright, because “Secretary Azar was very angry with Dr. Bright and was ‘on the war path’” and that “Secretary Azar directed HHS employees to refrain from doing anything that would help Dr. Bright be successful in his new role.”
Disbrow said later Thursday that he didn’t make any of the statements Bright described.
“Azar has never spoken to me in the manner alleged. I have also never instructed any BARDA employee not to talk to Rick. In fact, I had a conversation with him yesterday about how to collaborate between RADx and BARDA,” he said in a statement, referring to the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative. “I am confused by these untrue statements and allegations, which distract from the important work we are doing in response to the coronavirus.”
Bright’s complaint does not provide other evidence of Azar directly interfering in Bright’s work.
Bright says that Azar’s alleged comments have made BARDA employees reluctant to coordinate with him in his new job at the National Institutes of Health, and thus are part of a coordinated effort by the federal government to keep him from succeeding in his new role.
“Secretary Azar and his team have sidelined, disparaged and attempted to thwart the efforts of Dr. Bright, one of the nation’s leading pandemic and vaccine experts, to punish him for speaking out about HHS’s irresponsible and chaotic response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Bright’s lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, wrote in a press statement.
Bright’s lawyers are now requesting that Azar recuse himself from determining whether Bright should be reinstated. The Office of Special Counsel, which handles whistleblower complaints, determined in May that Bright should be reinstated to his position at BARDA pending a full investigation, but the final decision on whether to reinstate Bright falls to Azar.
Bright’s amended complaint also paints a stark picture of his new, strikingly narrow role at the National Institutes of Health. Bright, who ran BARDA for four years, is tasked with helping diagnostic test companies that have already gained FDA approval scale up manufacturing.
“As BARDA Director, Dr. Bright supervised a staff of over 250 people,” the complaint states. “In his current role, Dr. Bright has a part-time contracted employee to assist with scheduling.”