Five claims from the US health official behind whistleblower suit

Rick Bright, the former director of the body charged with funding potential drugs and vaccines to tackle coronavirus, filed a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday, accusing the US government of ignoring his warnings in its response to the pandemic and engaging in “cronyism” with its investments.

In an 89-page document filed with the US Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency with prosecutorial powers, the ousted director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority set out his criticisms and alleged he was demoted for pushing back.

The US Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment. 

Here are five main claims from Dr Bright’s suit. 

‘Cronyism’ before Covid-19

Dr Bright said his problems at Barda started in 2017. Health department leaders had put him under pressure “to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism”, according to the complaint.

Dr Bright said he raised concerns about a pharmaceuticals industry consultant called John Clerici, who he said had a “longstanding connection” to Dr Bright’s boss, Robert Kadlec, and played an “outsized role” in the awarding of contracts.

In one example, Dr Bright wanted to allow a contract to Aeolus, a biotech company, to expire. But he alleged Mr Clerici tried to persuade him not to, saying John McManus, the company’s chief executive, was a “friend of Jared Kushner”, the president’s son-in-law, and had “Hollywood connections”.

Mr Clerici has reportedly denied such a conversation happened. He was quoted by the New York Times as saying the allegations would be proven false and that Dr Bright had “chosen to distract people like Dr Kadlec, who are critical to the [pandemic] response, with politically motivated allegations”.

Mr Clerici did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr McManus told the Financial Times he was not a friend of and had not met Mr Kushner, and did not have friends in Hollywood.

Bypassing Barda

Dr Bright claimed a pattern of ignoring scientific evidence continued after the pandemic hit. He alleged Dr Kadlec tried to bypass Barda’s vetting process using a fund called ASPR Next — named after the office Dr Kadlec leads as the assistant secretary for preparedness and response — that was started last year. He said this was used to try to back “pet projects, regardless of scientific merit”, including one already rejected by Barda before Covid-19. It is not clear in the suit what it invested in. 

“Dr Kadlec cultivated an environment in which industry partners regularly bypassed agency procedures designed to prevent influence peddling and conflicts of interest, forcing Dr Bright and his deputies to spend valuable time — including during the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis — fending off improper and often illegal requests from private industry and their agents,” the document states. 

Early warnings ignored

The whistleblower complaint paints a picture of Dr Bright as repeatedly warning early on about serious shortages of masks and the need to invest quickly in drugs and diagnostics, while the HHS secretary Alex Azar and Dr Kadlec played down the problems. 

As the outbreak spread in Wuhan, Dr Bright claimed he first asked for the US to request a sample of the virus from China on January 10. On January 18, he said he pushed for a meeting of the disaster leadership group, but was told by Dr Kadlec that he was “not sure if there was time sensitive urgency”.

A few days later, Mr Azar and Dr Kadlec maintained they did not know if the virus would come to the US. Dr Bright reported saying it “might already be here. We just don’t have the tests to know one way or the other”. 

Dr Bright said he tried to take things into his own hands. Prestige Ameritech, a mask maker, contacted him on January 21, saying it could open extra production lines with government funding. When he tried to assign Barda funds for mask production, he claimed his superiors stripped them out, saying the money should come from the Strategic National Stockpile.

Dr Bright said he began to make progress only when he was able to meet Peter Navarro, President Trump’s top trade adviser, who shared his sense of urgency.

Lives at risk by rush to use hydroxychloroquine

Dr Bright was unnerved by the administration’s insistence in boosting the supply of the antimalarial treatment hydroxychloroquine when there was no evidence it was effective against Covid-19 and could have significant side-effects. 

He described how the White House wanted to make the drug available to people outside hospitals, which he feared could cause “serious patient harm and potentially many patient deaths”. Dr Bright said he worked with Janet Woodcock, a director at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, to push the “compromise position” of an emergency use authorisation, which meant the drug could only be prescribed in hospitals. 

But Dr Bright still had concerns the White House was trying to bring in drugs from foreign factories which had not been inspected by the Food and Drug Administration and that FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn was persisting with a plan to provide it to pharmacies nationwide.

The FDA did not respond to a request for comment. 

Pushed out for speaking out

Dr Bright claimed he was shunted into a job with no real responsibilities at the National Institutes of Health because his bosses were fed up with his criticism. 

In the complaint, he said they suspected he shared health department emails about hydroxychloroquine with a journalist, which he had done. The suit said he hoped that by “shining a light on HHS’s reckless and dangerous push to make this drug available, human lives would be saved”.

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