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US settles with Trump admin whistleblower who exposed botched COVID response

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Rick Bright walks out of a hearing room, wearing a face mask and gloves.
Enlarge / Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, steps out of the hearing room before testifying about the government response to the novel coronavirus pandemic to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill May 14, 2020, in Washington, DC.

The US government has reached a financial settlement with whistleblower Rick Bright, a former health official who detailed the Trump administration’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bright is an immunology expert who led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) until he says he was forced out of his position in April 2020. We wrote a detailed summary of the whistleblower complaint he filed shortly after.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced its settlement with Bright today. “The agency would like to thank Dr. Bright for his dedicated public service and for the contributions he made to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic while he served as BARDA Director. We wish him well in his new endeavors,” the HHS statement said.

Details of the settlement were not officially released. “But Dr. Bright’s lawyer, Debra S. Katz, said her client had been compensated to the fullest extent allowed by the law,” The New York Times wrote. “She said he will receive back pay, as well as damages to cover the costs of private security and temporary housing that he required after receiving threats. He will also receive compensation, Ms. Katz said, for distress ‘associated with the disparaging comments and threats’ made by administration officials including [President] Trump, who had blasted Dr. Bright on Twitter as a ‘creep’ and a ‘disgruntled employee.'”

Sidelined for prioritizing science

Bright’s complaint last year said the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response was marred by cronyism and denial about the virus’s severity. Bright said he was transferred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a “retaliatory demotion” after he warned about the severity of the pandemic and shortages of medical supplies. Bright also fought the administration’s push for hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that Trump repeatedly promoted as a coronavirus treatment despite a lack of evidence that it would be effective.

The whistleblower complaint said:

Dr. Bright was removed as BARDA Director and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the midst of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic because his efforts to prioritize science and safety over political expediency and to expose practices that posed a substantial risk to public health and safety, especially as it applied to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, rankled those in the Administration who wished to continue to push this false narrative. Similarly, Dr. Bright clearly earned the enmity of HHS leadership when his communications with members of Congress, certain White House officials, and the press—all whom were, like him, intent on identifying concrete measures to combat this deadly virus—revealed the lax and dismissive attitude HHS leadership exhibited in the face of the deadly threat confronting our country.

Shortly before his dismissal, Bright concluded that “he had exhausted all avenues to alert government officials, who refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public” about the risks of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and thus leaked details including internal emails to a Reuters journalist. He was removed from his position days after the article published.

“[O]n the very day that [HHS leadership] involuntarily removed Dr. Bright from his position, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19,” Bright’s complaint said.

The World Health Organization says it does not recommend hydroxychloroquine to prevent or treat COVID-19 because of trials showing the drug is not effective against the disease and has side effects including diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, drowsiness, headaches, heart rhythm problems, blood and lymph disorders, kidney injury, and liver problems including liver failure.

Even in the years before the pandemic, according to Bright’s complaint, the Trump administration’s HHS leadership “pressured Dr. Bright and BARDA to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism.”

Bright told the Times this week that “going through the assault that I experienced from the last administration, going through the public criticism from the White House and HHS leadership when I was just trying to do my job, put a lot of stress on me. They were trying to find anything they could to disparage me and discredit me.”

The allegations that Bright made against the Trump administration are still being investigated by the Office of Special Counsel, the Times wrote.

Bright now planning for future pandemics

Bright has since been hired by the Rockefeller Foundation as its senior VP of pandemic prevention and response. He is leading the group’s “work to collaborate with leading global public health emergency organizations and entities to develop a pandemic prevention institute that aims to avert future pandemics by identifying and responding to the earliest alerts of a disease outbreak and stopping it in the first 100 days,” the foundation said in the March 2021 announcement of his hiring.

Bright testified at a Congressional hearing after he filed the whistleblower complaint. At the hearing, US Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said that “Dr. Bright has filed one of the most specific and troubling whistleblower complaints I have ever seen” and that “he was fired for being right.”

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