Lawyers for ousted U.S. health official say he will file whistleblower's complaint

The head of a U.S. government agency combatting the coronavirus pandemic alleged Wednesday that he was ousted for opposing politically connected efforts to promote a malaria drug that President Donald Trump touted without proof as a remedy for COVID-19.

Rick Bright said he objected to 'misguided' efforts to strenuously promote hydroxychloroquine

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the press briefing room of the White House on Wednesday. Trump said he didn't know Dr. Bright and wasn't aware of his firing. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

Lawyers for the ousted director of a U.S. agency responsible for the development of drugs to fight the COVID-19 pandemic said on Thursday he will file a whistleblower's complaint with two government offices over his reassignment.

Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, said on Wednesday he was replaced as its director because he resisted the Trump administration's efforts to push hydroxychloroquine and the related chloroquine as cures for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

Controversy has swirled around the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine since Trump started promoting it from the podium in the White House briefing room.

BARDA, the agency that Bright formerly headed, is a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services created to counter threats from bioterrorism and infectious diseases. It has recently been trying to jump-start work on a vaccine for the coronavirus.

"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," his lawyers said in a statement.

His lawyers said they will file the complaint with the Office of Special Counsel and the Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General.

Bright hopes he will be reinstated in his post at BARDA once the facts of the case become known, his lawyers said.

Bright and his lawyers had previously requested investigations by the HHS inspector general and by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that has as part of its charge the protection of government whistleblowers.

"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 wrote.

House Democrats who led the chamber's energy and commerce committee echoed that call in a letter Thursday to HHS.

"Removing Dr. Bright in the midst of a pandemic would raise serious concerns under any circumstances, but his allegations that political considerations influenced this decision heighten those concerns and demand full accountability," said New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone Jr., the committee chair.

'Maybe he was' pushed out: Trump

Trump, when asked about Bright at Wednesday's White House briefing on coronavirus, said he "never heard of him."

"The guy says he was pushed out of a job," Trump said. "Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't. ... I don't know who he is."

Bright also alluded to "clashes with HHS political leadership" over his efforts to "invest early in vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives." One of the major criticisms of the Trump administration's pandemic response is that little was done in the month of February to stockpile needed equipment.

"Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics," Bright said.

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is seen engaging with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a daily coronavirus task force session on April 3. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Alex Azar, a lawyer and former drug industry executive, leads the HHS, the second permanent chief for the agency during Trump's term.

Two agencies Alex Azar oversaw as HHS secretary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, wouldn't come up with viable coronavirus tests for five and a half weeks, even as other countries and the World Health Organization had already prepared their own.

Behind the scenes, his aides say, Azar had alerted the White House to the alarming virus reports in China in early January, and then later that month spoke directly to the president. It is unclear exactly what Azar told the president, because transcripts are not available.

Trump denied Azar sent out alarms. "@SecAzar told me nothing until later," he tweeted earlier this month.

By late February, Vice-President Mike Pence had taken over from Azar as the lead on the administration's main coronavirus task force.

In a statement Wednesday night, HHS confirmed that Bright is no longer at the BARDA agency, but did not address his allegations of political interference in scientific matters.

Questions over efficacy of hydroxychloroquine

HHS said it was Bright who had requested an emergency use authorization for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. In his statement, Bright had said he insisted that the authorization be limited to a restricted group of patients, those hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 under the supervision of a doctor.

Hydroxychloroquine was given to patients in the New York area, the nation's most intense COVID-19 hot spot. It is usually administered in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin.

LISTEN l Front Burner, April 6, on hydroxychloroquine:

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine - two drugs touted by U.S. President Donald Trump, who says they could be game changing treatments for COVID-19. But around the world health experts have tried to temper expectations for these medications. Today, on Front Burner, we talk to infectious disease specialist, Dr. Isaac Bogoch about these drugs and the testing being done to determine if they hold any promise at all. 13:33

The HHS inspector general's office had no response to Bright's request for an investigation.

"President Trump is not a doctor, a scientist or a medical professional," said Rosa DeLauro, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs a House panel that oversees HHS finances, on Wednesday. "The notion that he and his political appointees are making personnel decisions based on how effective the president thinks drugs like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine will be ... is completely unacceptable."

Trump has repeatedly touted the malaria drug during his regular coronavirus briefings, calling it a "game-changer," and suggesting its skeptics would be proved wrong. He has offered patient testimonials that the drug is a lifesaver.

But a recent study of 368 patients in U.S. veterans hospitals found no benefit from hydroxychloroquine – and more deaths. The study was an early look at the medication, which has prompted debate in the medical community, with many doctors leery of using it.

WATCH l Remdesivir also subject to early studies:

Drug designed for Ebola a potential treatment for COVID-19

1 year ago
Researchers say Remdesivir, a drug designed to treat Ebola, is showing promising results against COVID-19 but warn it’s too soon to say. 1:57

An official biography describes Bright as a flu and infectious disease expert who joined the agency 10 years ago and was focused on vaccine development.

Bright's allegations were first reported by The New York Times, and echoed the events that led to Trump's impeachment in the House and subsequent acquittal in the Senate in January. In the latter case, Trump and several Republicans in Congress excoriated an anonymous whistleblower whose complaint raised alarms about the motives of the administration's foreign policy in Ukraine.

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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