Retaliation for speaking truth to power

via Washington Post 202 – By James Hohmann
with Mariana Alfaro
 Email  – Apr. 23, 2020

Ousted vaccine expert, alleging retaliation, is not the first scientist sidelined in Trump era

President Trump said three times Wednesday that he had “never heard of” Rick Bright, the scientist who alleges he was removed as the leader of the federal agency working on a coronavirus vaccine because he resisted efforts to “provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public.”

“The guy says he was pushed out of a job. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t,” the president said during his evening news conference at the White House. “I’d have to hear the other side. I don’t know who he is.”

Trump’s professed unfamiliarity with a top official tasked with developing a cure for a contagion that has killed at least 46,782 and infected 842,000 Americans is in and of itself remarkable. But it captures in miniature Trump’s strained relationship with scientific experts, who polls show voters rely on most for accurate information about the coronavirus.

Bright said he was removed on Tuesday as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, known as BARDA, and “involuntarily transferred to a more limited and less impactful position at the National Institutes of Health.” Through whistleblower lawyers he has retained to represent him, the immunologist released a blistering 516-word statement on Wednesday afternoon. “Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safely and effectively address this urgent public health crisis,” he wrote.

Bright, who has a doctorate in immunology and molecular pathogenesis from Emory University and has spent his entire career in vaccine development, maintains that he was pushed out after expressing opposition to the anti-malarial drug that was being promoted as a cure-all by people in the administration. He acknowledged clashing with political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services over what ideas made the most scientific sense to pursue.

“I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections,” Bright wrote. “Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the Administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit. 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. I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician. 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 his statement that he will formally request an investigation into his dismissal by the HHS inspector general, as well as “the manner in which this Administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit.”

“Rushing blindly towards unproven drugs can be disastrous and result in countless more deaths. Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics,” Bright wrote.

The political appointees at HHS dispute that Bright fought against using the drugs. “As it relates to chloroquine, it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization 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,” HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement. She added that Bright will “work on development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms” in the new role at NIH.

Other Trump appointees told various reporters on the condition of anonymity that Bright – a civil servant who has held the job since 2016 – was overly confrontational, ineffective and that they had been looking to get rid of him since before the pandemic because of his job performance. “One person familiar with the situation said Bright was frozen out of his email and learned about the reassignment only when his name was removed from the BARDA website this weekend,” Politico reports.

Bright’s allies, signaling a potentially messy back-and-forth to come, implicated Trump: “A person familiar with Dr. Bright’s account said that Dr. Bright was pressured to rush access to the drug after the president and Larry Ellison, the chairman and chief technology officer of Oracle, had a conversation about chloroquines,” the New York Times reports. “Dr. Bright was then directed to put in place a nationwide expanded access program to make the drugs available on a broad basis without specific controls in place, according to the person familiar with his account. Medical experts say that it is still not known whether hydroxychloroquine might emerge as an effective treatment for the most devastating symptoms of Covid-19.”

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