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U.S. scientist says he was demoted for raising red flags over unproven COVID-19 treatment

A U.S. government scientist says he was ousted from his position after raising concerns the Trump administration wanted to "flood" coronavirus hot spots such as New York and New Jersey with the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine despite scant scientific evidence it is effective against COVID-19.

Whistleblower complaint says he resisted pressure to push drug favoured by Trump administration

A U.S. government scientist has filed a complaint saying he was demoted for raising concerns about the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

A U.S. government scientist says he was ousted from his position after raising concerns the Trump administration wanted to "flood" coronavirus hot spots such as New York and New Jersey with a malaria drug despite scant scientific evidence it is effective against COVID-19.

Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), filed the complaint Tuesday with the Office of Special Counsel, a government agency responsible for whistleblower complaints.

He alleges he was reassigned to a lesser role because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug touted publicly by President Donald Trump.

Bright also said the Trump administration rejected his warnings on COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Bright said he "acted with urgency" to address the growing spread of COVID-19 after the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning in January.

He said he "encountered resistance from HHS leadership, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic event."

Bright alleges in the complaint that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services had tried to promote hydroxychloroquine "as a panacea." The officials also "demanded that New York and New Jersey be 'flooded' with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA," the complaint says.

WATCH: Bright's lawyer speaks to his allegation:

U.S. President Donald Trump has clarified that the coronavirus task force will not disband anytime soon. The news comes as a government scientist files a complaint about his demotion and the administration's response to COVID-19.    4:13

Serious side-effects

But Bright says he opposed broad use of the drug to treat COVID-19 patients, arguing the scientific evidence wasn't there to back up such a course of action. He felt an urgent need to tell the public as much, the complaint states.

Trump repeatedly touted the drug, with caveats, during his daily White House coronavirus task force briefings. During at least one April briefing, he prevented Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the doctors on the task force, from answering reporters' questions about the treatment. 

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors against prescribing the drug except in hospitals and research studies. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side-effects among COVID-19 patients taking hydroxychloroquine or the related drug chloroquine.

Rick Bright, recently ousted director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, is seen in his 2017 official U.S. government portrait photo in Washington. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Handout via Reuters)

The decades-old drugs, also prescribed for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause a number of side-effects, including heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage.

The complaint says officials to whom Bright had complained "refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public" and so he spoke to a reporter who was working on a story about the drug.

"As the death toll mounted exponentially each day, Dr. Bright concluded that he had a moral obligation to the American public, including those vulnerable as a result of illness from COVID-19, to protect it from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety," the complaint says.

On Jan. 20, according to the complaint, the WHO held an emergency call to discuss the novel coronavirus. It was attended by many HHS officials, and WHO officials advised that "the outbreak is a big problem."

Trump has accused the UN agency of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus after it emerged in China and said he would cut its funding.

On Tuesday, Trump said he would be winding down the White House task force as the country moves into a second phase of dealing with the aftermath of the outbreak, particularly reopening the economy.

"We're now looking at a little bit of a different form and that form is safety and opening and we'll have a different group probably set up for that," Trump said during a visit to a mask factory in Arizona.

In the complaint, Bright says he wants to be returned to his position as director of BARDA and a full investigation launched.

When Bright's plans to file a complaint surfaced last month, HHS confirmed that he was no longer at BARDA, but did not address his allegations of political interference in the COVID-19 response.

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