- Rick Bright, the ousted director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, has filed new claims in his whistleblower lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services, charging that HHS Secretary Alex Azar sought to undermine him and narrow his role in his new job coordinating coronavirus diagnostics.
- Bright was reassigned from leading BARDA to a position at the National Institutes of Health in April. He claimed that it was the result of clashes with senior HHS officials over the department's focus on using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus infections, a tension reflected in the Food and Drug Administration issuing and then rescinding an emergency authorization.
- As the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S., the Trump administration found itself at odds with the scientific community who urged earlier and stronger action to acquire essential medical supplies, build testing capacity and accelerate research into treatments and vaccines. Bright claims he was among those seeking a fast response, another conflict with senior department leaders that he alleges resulted in his reassignment.
A vaccine expert, Bright argues that his new position at the National Institutes of Health is a step down from his job as BARDA director, where he was in charge of treatments, vaccines and other medical responses to emerging infectious diseases, according to the new addendum to his whistleblower complaint.
Moreover, he claims his new role was narrowed even further when he learned HHS Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir was being put in charge of the government's diagnostics efforts.
Bright said personnel at his old agency were trying to undermine him even as he tried to perform his new duties at NIH. As he attempted to coordinate NIH's diagnostics work with BARDA's, he tried to contact acting BARDA Director Gary Disbrow. However, Disbrow never responded, according to Bright's complaint.
A subsequent attempt to contact Disbrow, through another BARDA employee, prompted the acting director to warn that employee to be "very careful" in dealing with Bright, according to the new complaint.
"[Disbrow] explained that Secretary Azar was very angry with Dr. Bright and was 'on the war path.' He explained that Secretary Azar directed HHS employees to refrain from doing anything that would help Dr. Bright be successful in his new role," according to the addendum.
In a statement emailed to BioPharma Dive, Disbrow said: "I did not make any of these statements and Secretary Azar has never spoken to me in the manner alleged. I have also never instructed any BARDA employee not to talk to Rick. In fact, I had a conversation with him yesterday about how to collaborate between [NIH] and BARDA."
The addendum also claims public disparagement by members of Congress, Azar and President Donald Trump on the day he was called to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee heath panel.
Trump tweeted that Bright "should no longer be working for our government," while Azar and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., criticized him for being absent from work while on approved medical leave for hypertension.
Editors note: This story has been updated with a response from Disbrow.