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Ousted HHS official files whistleblower complaint on coronavirus response

Dr. Rick Bright's complaint says Health and Human Services leadership was slow to react and pushed contracts "based on political connections."
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Dr. Rick Bright's complaint portrays the Department of Health and Human Services as slow to react to the initial threat of the coronavirus.Toya Sarno Jordan / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

A top Health and Human Services official who says he was shoved out of a key coronavirus response job for pushing back on "efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections" filed a whistleblower complaint Tuesday charging "an abuse of authority or gross mismanagement" at the agency.

In his complaint, Dr. Rick Bright, who until last month was the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response and director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, described a chaotic response to the virus at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The chaos was 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," the complaint says.

Bright filed the complaint, which seeks reinstatement at BARDA, with the Office of Special Counsel.

After the complaint was filed, Bright's lawyers said he had agreed to testify before a House committee on May 14. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, said that the complaint "raises serious concerns about the Administration's COVID-19 response including alleged gross mismanagement, waste of funds, abuse of authority, and scientific censorship" and that it "deserves examination."

A spokesperson for HHS, Caitlin Oakley, said Bright was transferred to the National Institutes of Health "to work on diagnostics testing — critical to combatting COVID-19 — where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort."

"We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor," Oakley said.

Kendra Barkoff, a spokesperson for Bright's legal team, said he had "not been given any details about his new assignment or what his new job would entail; nonetheless, under his doctor's direction, he has been on sick leave due to hypertension caused by this current situation."

The 89-page whistleblower complaint says Bright 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.

"I insisted on scientifically vetted proposals, and I pushed for a more aggressive agency response to COVID-19. My supervisor became furious when Congress appropriated billions of dollars directly to my office, and when I spoke directly to members of Congress," the complaint says.

Bright identified his supervisor as Dr. Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response. Kadlec — who reports to HHS Secretary Alex Azar — is responsible for coordinating the coronavirus response from both HHS and the federal government.

Bright says he "repeatedly clashed with Dr. Kadlec and other HHS leaders about the outsized role played by John Clerici, an industry consultant to pharmaceutical companies with a longstanding connection to Dr. Kadlec, in the award of government contracts."

"Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, Dr. Bright became even more alarmed about the pressure that Dr. Kadlec and other government officials were exerting on BARDA to invest in drugs, vaccines, and other technologies without proper scientific vetting or that lacked scientific merit," the complaint says.

It also portrays HHS as slow to react to the initial threat.

"Unlike Secretary Azar, Dr. Bright and other public health officials were fully aware of the emerging threat of COVID-19 by early January 2020," the complaint says. While he and his staff pushed for genetic sequencing and other information about the virus, the complaint says, he "initially encountered indifference which then developed into hostility from HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar, as Dr. Bright and his staff raised concerns about the virus and the urgent need to act."

On Jan. 18, Bright urged Kadlec and his group to coordinate senior-level meetings, called Disaster Leadership Group meetings, to coordinate planning activities across the government for the emerging outbreak, but Kadlec pushed off the request, the complaint says, emailing that he's "[n]ot sure if that is a time sensitive urgency."

Kadlec and others also ignored Bright's warnings about a potential shortage of N95 masks, the complaint says — even though Bright forwarded them an email warning that mask shortages were "an imminent risk."

Those concerns were ignored until early February, when a mask supplier warning about shortages connected Bright with White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who "shared Dr. Bright's sense of urgency" and eventually prodded HHS to take action, the complaint says.

Bright also raised red flags about a potential shortage of testing materials — and was again blown off by HHS leadership, the complaint says.

Kadlec and other agency officials were far more responsive when it came to directives from the White House to ramp up acquisitions of hydroxychloroquine. Trump frequently touted the drug during his daily news conferences, calling it a potential game-changer for treating the virus, and the Food and Drug Administration in March granted emergency use approval to distribute millions of doses of the drugs to hospitals across the country to be used specifically in hospitalized patients.

Since then, scientists have warned of major flaws in an initial study suggesting that the drug might be effective in treating the illness, and the journal that published the study announced that it did not meet its standards. The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology have warned of dangerous side effects, including heart arrhythmia and sudden death in certain patients given the "corona cocktail," a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.

Bright said his office had been pushed to promote the drug as a therapeutic "despite a clear lack of scientific support."

Eshoo said she has also invited Azar and Kadlec to testify. It is not clear whether they will be able to — the White House Office of Legislative Affairs told congressional staff directors Monday that no members of its coronavirus task force or their top deputies "may accept hearing invitations" from Congress during May. Some exceptions may be made by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, the office's guidance says.

Trump said Tuesday he did not want a prominent task force member, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to testify before the House this week because "the House is a setup, the House is a bunch of Trump haters."

Heidi Przybyla and Jacob Gardenswartz contributed.