Trump chloroquine push came after talk with donor, source says

The official said he was instructed to implement a program aimed at expanding access to the drug after the president's conversation with a billionaire supporter.

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By Geoff Bennett and Dareh Gregorian

WASHINGTON — A top Health and Human Services official who said he was transferred from his post for pushing back on "efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections" felt pressured to rush access to chloroquine treatments for the coronavirus after President Donald Trump had a conversation about it with a mega-rich donor, a source close to the doctor told NBC News.

Dr. Rick Bright said he was instructed to implement a national program aimed at expanding access to the drug without proper controls and despite the lack of peer-reviewed clinical data on the drug's effectiveness following a conversation Trump had with Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison, the source said.

Ellison, one of the president's top supporters in the tech industry, is a member of the White House economic recovery task force. He hosted a big-money fundraiser for Trump at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, in February.

The president has repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine as a potential "game changer" in the battle against the coronavirus.

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The New York Times reported April 6 that "Mr. Trump first expressed interest in hydroxychloroquine a few weeks ago, telling associates that Mr. Ellison, a billionaire and a founder of Oracle, had discussed it with him." Oracle is also reported to be working with the federal government on an online platform to track the effectiveness of off-label drugs used to combat COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus.

Bright was deputy assistant secretary of health and human services for preparedness and response, as well as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, until earlier this week, when, he said, he was "involuntarily transferred to a more limited and less impactful position at the National Institutes of Health" for having pushed back against pressure for widespread use of the drug.

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

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services told NBC News in a statement Wednesday night that "it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration for donations of chloroquine that Bayer and Sandoz recently made to the Strategic National Stockpile for use on COVID-19 patients."

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A source familiar with Bright's situation said the administration was pushing for a program of expanded access nationwide that would provide chloroquine with limited physician oversight.

"Dr. Bright and his team were insisting upon a randomized controlled clinical study because there was insufficient information on the benefit and the potential harms of the drug to patients with COVID-19," the source said. Implementing the EUA, the source said, was a compromise between the two positions.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., wrote a letter Thursday requesting an HHS inspector general's investigation into Bright's reassignment.

Bright's lawyers, Debra S. Katz and Lisa J. Banks, said in a statement that they would be filing whistleblower complaints with the inspector general and with the Office of Special Counsel, and they accused the Trump administration of having made "demonstrably false statements" about their client.

"In our filing we will make clear that Dr. Bright was sidelined for one reason only — because he resisted efforts to provide unfettered access to potentially dangerous drugs, including chloroquine, a drug promoted by the Administration as a panacea, but which is untested and possibly deadly when used improperly. The facts and concerns raised by Dr. Bright are compelling and well-documented and soon they will be public," the lawyers said.