BARDA loses leader in middle of race to create COVID-19 vaccine

The U.S. agency leading efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 has lost its leader. Rick Bright, a vaccine specialist, is moving to a new role in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at a time when his former employer is scrambling to help biopharma make a COVID-19 prophylactic available.

In recent weeks, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the group Bright led, has played a key role in adding financial muscle to COVID-19 vaccine programs, inking a $483 million agreement with Moderna and teaming up with Johnson & Johnson to funnel $1 billion into its candidate.

As director of BARDA, Bright oversaw the agreements. Bright looked to have credentials tailor-made for the situation, with stints leading BARDA’s flu pandemic preparations and working on vaccine R&D at Novavax on his résumé. Yet, as Stat first reported, Bright has now left BARDA.

Bright has moved over to a role at the NIH that will see him to contribute to efforts to develop tests for COVID-19 that can be done at the point of care. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said Bright will apply his “experience and expertise in facilitating powerful public-private partnerships” to “a bold plan to accelerate the development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms.” 

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The new work overlaps with some of the projects Bright was involved in while at BARDA, such as pandemic preparations that modeled the impact of using at-home diagnostics and wearables to enable early virus detection.

BARDA’s work suggested such technologies could flatten the curve, buying the U.S. time to develop a vaccine capable of stopping a pandemic. The U.S. and the rest of the world are now living in a version of that model, but responsibility for enacting BARDA’s plan will fall on someone else.

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In the interim, Gary Disbrow, who deputized for Bright at BARDA, is stepping up to the director post. The temporary promotion of Disbrow, who has worked at BARDA since early 2007, could reduce the disruption caused by the change of leader during the middle of a pandemic.

Disbrow also has a background that is a good fit for the current crisis. Before joining BARDA, Disbrow worked on viruslike particle vaccines at Georgetown Medical Center, including on research that led to the development and approval of Merck’s Gardasil. Since joining BARDA, Disbrow has played a role in initiatives such as development of a smallpox vaccine and creation of medical countermeasures