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Senior scientist says administration ignored virus warnings

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration failed to prepare for the onslaught of the coronavirus, then sought a quick fix by trying to rush an unproven drug to patients, a senior government scientist alleged in a whistleblower complaint.

Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, alleges he was reassigned to a lesser role because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug pushed by President Donald Trump. He said the Trump administration wanted to “flood” hot spots in New York and New Jersey with the drug.

“I witnessed government leadership rushing blindly into a potentially dangerous situation by bringing in a non-FDA approved chloroquine from Pakistan and India, from facilities that had never been approved by the FDA,” Bright said Tuesday on a call with reporters. “Their eagerness to push blindly forward without sufficient data to put this drug into the hands of Americans was alarming to me and my fellow scientists.”

Bright filed the complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, a government agency that investigates retaliation against federal employees who uncover problems. He wants his job back and a full investigation.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a terse statement saying that Bright was transferred to the National Institutes of Health to work on coronavirus testing, a crucial assignment. “We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor,” HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said.

According HHS, Bright has not reported to his new post. But his spokeswoman said that Bright is on sick leave, following his doctor's orders, and that HHS has provided him no details on his new role.

Bright's complaint comes as the Trump administration faces criticism over its response to the pandemic, including testing and supplies of ventilators, masks and other equipment to stem the spread. There have been nearly 1.2 million confirmed cases in the United States and more than 70,000 deaths.

Bright said his superiors repeatedly rejected his warnings that the virus would spread in the U.S., missing an early opportunity to stock up on protective masks for first responders. He said he “acted with urgency” to address the growing spread of COVID-19 — the disease the virus causes — after the World Health Organization issued a warning in January.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, said she plans to hold a hearing into his complaint next week, and Bright’s lawyers said he would testify. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appearing on MSNBC, called the complaint “very damaging.”

In his complaint, Bright said he “encountered resistance from HHS leadership, including Secretary (Alex) Azar, who appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic event.”

During a Feb. 23 meeting, Azar, as well as Bright's boss, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec, “responded with surprise at (Bright’s) dire predictions and urgency, and asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out,” the whistleblower complaint said.

Bright said White House trade adviser Peter Navarro was a rare exception among administration officials, extremely concerned about the potential consequences of an outbreak. He described working with Navarro to break a bureaucratic logjam and set up military transport from Italy for swabs needed in the U.S.

Navarro was the author of several urgent memos within the White House. Bright said Navarro asked for his help, saying the trade adviser told him the memos were needed to “save lives.”

Navarro’s memos to top officials raised alarms even as Trump was publicly assuring Americans that the outbreak was under control.

Bright’s allegation that he was removed over his resistance to widespread use of the malaria drug was already public, but his whistleblower complaint added details from emails and internal communications while bringing to light his early attempts to acquire N95 respirator masks, which he said were ignored by superiors.

In late January, Bright said he was contacted by an official of a leading mask manufacturer about ramping up production. It was estimated that as many as 3.5 billion would be needed, while the national stockpile had about 300 million.

The complaint said that when Bright tried to press the issue about masks with superiors at HHS, he was ignored or rebuffed. “HHS publicly represented not only that COVID-19 was not an imminent threat, but also that HHS already had all the masks it would need,” the complaint said.

As the epidemic spread in the U.S. and engulfed the New York metropolitan area, Bright alleges that political appointees at HHS tried to promote hydroxychloroquine “as a panacea.” The officials also “demanded that New York and New Jersey be ‘flooded’ with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA,” the complaint says.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors against prescribing the drug except in hospitals and research studies. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side effects among coronavirus patients taking hydroxychloroquine or the related drug chloroquine.

Bright felt officials had “refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public” and spoke to a reporter about the drug. He said he had to tell the public about the lack of science backing up its use, despite the drug being pushed by the president at press briefings.

“As the death toll mounted exponentially each day, Dr. Bright concluded that he had a moral obligation to the American public, including those vulnerable as a result of illness from COVID-19, to protect it from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” the complaint says.

On Jan. 20, according to the complaint, the WHO held an emergency call that was attended by many HHS officials, and WHO officials advised that “the outbreak is a big problem.”

Trump has accused the U.N. agency of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus after it emerged in China. He has also said he wants to cut the WHO's funding.

Bright’s agency works to guard against pandemics and emergent infectious diseases and is working to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Top officials also pressured him to steer contracts to a client of a lobbyist, he reported.

"Time after time I was pressured to ignore or dismiss expert scientific recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections,” Bright said in the call with reporters. “In other words, I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government.”

Zachary Kurz, a spokesman for the agency where Bright filed his complaint, said the office couldn’t comment or confirm the status of open investigations.