Ousted coronavirus whistleblower says Trump administration is 'on the warpath' against him

Dr. Rick Bright, who was removed from a key pandemic response job, updated his whistleblower complaint with additional allegations of retribution.
Image: Rick Bright
Dr. Rick Bright testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on May 14, 2019, in Washington.Shawn Thew / AFP - Getty Images

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By Adam Edelman

A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services who says he was ousted from a key pandemic response job for pushing back against demands to sign off on a coronavirus treatment the president had advocated said Thursday he’d been further retaliated against by the department’s head.

Dr. Rick Bright, who had been 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 mid-April, updated his existing whistleblower complaint Thursday with allegations that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar directed staff at the agency to “thwart” his ability to do his new job.

According to the amended complaint, Bright alleged that Azar had told agency employees to “refrain from doing anything that would help Dr. Bright be successful in his new role” and that employees had been warned that Azar was “on the warpath” in response to Bright’s initial complaint.

“Going forward, Dr. Bright will need a collaborative relationship with BARDA to be successful, and Secretary Azar’s direction to BARDA employees is a clear act of retaliation that has impaired his ability to perform his job,” the amended complaint said.

In his initial whistleblower complaint to the Office of Special Counsel filed last month, Bright had said he was transferred from BARDA "without warning or explanation" over his refusal to embrace hydroxychloroquine — the anti-malarial drug promoted by President Donald Trump as a potential coronavirus remedy. Bright also said there was “gross mismanagement" at the agency.

Bright, whose initial complaint sought his reinstatement at BARDA, was transferred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the initial complaint, Bright also described a chaotic response to the coronavirus at the Department of Health and Human Services fueled largely by "pressure from HHS leadership to ignore scientific merit and expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism.

But in his amended complaint filed Thursday, Bright alleged that after he filed his initial complaint, top administration officials, including Trump, launched a retaliatory media campaign to try to discredit him and that he’d been sidelined at the NIH in an “extremely narrow role” that “excluded” him from the agency’s “work on vaccines, including the vaccine programs that he initiated in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic response.”

“This intentional effort to pigeon-hole Dr. Bright is detrimental to his entire professional career,” the amended complaint said. “He is excluded from the scientific and industry work to which he has devoted decades of his career.”

The amended complaint seeks that Azar recuse himself from the department’s official response to Bright’s initial complaint’s request that Bright be reinstated to his old job.

A week after he filed his initial complaint, Bright testified before Congress that the Trump administration's timeline for a coronavirus vaccine is likely too optimistic and faulted Trump and other senior officials for having minimized the outbreak early on — with, he said, deadly consequences.

As of Thursday, there were nearly 2.4 million COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. — and more than 122,000 deaths.

Trump dismissed Bright as a "disgruntled employee" on Twitter ahead of his testimony — a tweet that Bright cited in his amended complaint as evidence of the administration’s retaliatory campaign.