Ex-BARDA chief decries science taking back seat to politics, demands investigation into Trump administration

Rick Bright
Rick Bright (PHE.gov)

Rick Bright has launched an astonishing attack against “politics and cronyism” days after being kicked out of the agency leading the U.S. government’s push for a COVID-19 vaccine, as he demands a probe into the way the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has been politicized by the Trump administration.

Bright, a vaccine specialist, was deposed as BARDA's leader and was moved this week 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.

Stat first reported the news, and while there was no direct word from Bright, there was a lot of speculation. Now, Bright issued a statement via his law firm, seen by FierceBiotech, about his departure, and it is scathing in its assessment of why he was let go.

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He said that he was pressured to funnel cash toward the old anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, one of several “potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections,” including President Donald Trump, although Brick did not mention the president by name in the piece.

The drug is being trialed to see whether it can help patients but has not yet been approved to treat COVID-19.

The drug can come with serious side effects, but some doctors around the world have anecdotally said it may help some patients. However, much more rigorous testing will be needed to see whether that’s true, and whether, like any drug, it can achieve a balanced risk-benefit profile.

The NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has previously said there are currently “insufficient data” to recommend taking it to treat symptoms from the virus. Trump, however, has in the past few weeks continued to push for the drug’s use both on Twitter and in the coronavirus task force news briefings.

Bright said: “I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” he said in his statement. “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science—not politics or cronyism—has to lead the way.”

He went on: “My professional background has prepared me for a moment like this—to confront and defeat a deadly virus that threatens Americans and people around the globe. To this point, I have led the government’s efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with H.H.S. political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early into vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives. I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections,” he said, adding chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were “promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit.

“Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safely and effectively address this urgent public health crisis.” He also said he was going to ask that the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services "investigate the manner in which this Administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit. Rushing blindly towards unproven drugs can be disastrous and result in countless more deaths. Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics."

Trump typically takes to Twitter or claims not to know someone who has directly or indirectly criticized him. For Bright, he did the latter, telling reporters at a news briefing Wednesday: “I never heard of him. You just mentioned the name, I never heard of him. When did this happen? I never heard of him. The guy says he was pushed out of a job. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t; I’d have to hear the other side. I don’t know who he is.”

In recent weeks, 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.

In the interim, Bright's former deputy at BARDA Gary Disbrow 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.

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