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Top health official says he was ousted for pushing back on Trump's 'game changer' drug

"I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way," Dr. Rick Bright said.
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A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services says he was ousted from his job this week for pushing back on demands that he sign off on a coronavirus treatment the president had advocated.

"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. I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way," Dr. Rick Bright said Wednesday in a statement issued by his lawyers.

"Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the Administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit. While I am prepared to look at all options and to think 'outside the box' for effective treatments, I rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public," Bright said in the statement, which was first reported by The New York Times.

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President Donald Trump had repeatedly touted the drug as a potential "game changer" in treating coronavirus patients. A preliminary nationwide study, however, found that the drug was ineffective in treating the virus and that there were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine compared to those given standard care.

Meanwhile, a panel of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommended that doctors not use a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to treat COVID-19 patients because of potential severe health risks. Trump had urged that they be taken together.

Asked about Bright's transfer at the White House coronavirus briefing Wednesday night, Trump said, "I never heard of him."

Bright was deputy assistant secretary of health and human services for preparedness and response and director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, until earlier this week, when, he says, he was "involuntarily transferred to a more limited and less impactful position at the National Institutes of Health."

He said he had spent his "entire career in vaccine development."

"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 HHS political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early in 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.

The statement did not specify who those people are.

Bright said he insisted that the drugs "be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician."

"These drugs have potentially serious risks associated with them, including increased mortality observed in some recent studies in patients with COVID-19," he said.

Bright contended that his ouster in the middle of a pandemic was "placing politics and cronyism ahead of science" and "puts lives at risk."

He said he would ask HHS's inspector general to "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."

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Bright's lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, said they would seek a stay of "this unlawful forced transfer."

A source close to Bright told NBC News that he "has not been given any information about his new role at NIH" and "will fight to return to his position leading BARDA, where he can continue to use his vast experience and skills to work to end this pandemic."

In a statement late Wednesday, HHS said Bright will "work on development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms," then said he had previously asked the Food and Drug Administration to issue an emergency use authorization for donations of the drug.