May 6, 2020

Top HHS vaccine expert files whistleblower complaint alleging Trump admin ignored Covid-19 warnings

Daily Briefing

    Slow movement from HHS, "cronyism," "nepotism," and other issues hampered the Trump administration's response to the United States' new coronavirus epidemic, placing "the health and safety of all Americans at risk," according to a newly released whistleblower complaint filed by Rick Bright, the former director of HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

    Tomorrow: Your 45-minute Covid-19 weekly update

    Trump plans to wind down coronavirus task force, as US Covid-19 cases, deaths continue to rise

    The complaint comes as U.S. officials as of Wednesday morning reported 1,210,700 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus—up from 1,186,900 cases as of Tuesday morning.

    As of Wednesday morning, officials had reported a total of 71,077 U.S. deaths linked to the new coronavirus—up from 68,843 deaths reported as of Tuesday morning.

    Although the numbers of Covid-19 cases and related deaths continue to rise in the United States, the Trump administration is planning to phase out the White House's coronavirus task force over the coming weeks as the administration begins to shift its focus from responding to the epidemic to ramping up the nation's economy.

    On Tuesday, Vice President Pence, who described the administration's plans regarding the task force as preliminary, said the administration is working on a timeline for phasing out the task force and is considering late May or early June as potential end dates. Pence said the administration's senior aides have been discussing shifting the task force's responsibilities to individual federal agencies and departments, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Pence said has been coordinating the administration's response to the epidemic since mid-March.

    Trump during a trip to Arizona on Tuesday confirmed the administration's plans to disband the task force and said his administration is considering establishing a new group focused on "safety and opening." Trump said, "We can't keep our country closed."

    According to Politico, the new group would replace the current task force, collaborate with officials involved in the administration's "Operation Warp Speed" vaccine project, and focus on the development of therapeutics for the new coronavirus.

    Whistleblower alleges 'cronyism,' 'nepotism,' other issues affected admin's coronavirus response

    The administration's plan to dismantle the task force comes as Bright in a whistleblower complaint filed Friday alleged that "cronyism," "nepotism," and other issues at HHS hindered the administration's response to the country's Covid-19 epidemic.

    Last month, the administration moved Bright, who was one of the federal government's top experts on vaccines, from his former role as HHS' deputy assistant secretary for preparedness response and director of BARDA to a role at NIH. Bright at the time claimed he was involuntarily reassigned from BARDA to a lower-ranked position at NIH after he insisted the agency conduct more research on whether hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, can be used to treat Covid-19. President Trump in the past touted hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment for the disease, but researchers have said there isn't enough evidence to support that claim.

    Now, Bright in the 89-page whistleblower complaint also alleged that a "[l]ack of leadership and action by [other HHS officials] has placed the health and safety of all Americans at risk of not being protected from the deadly coronavirus even when a vaccine becomes available."

    For example, Bright in the complaint alleged that HHS ignored concerns he raised about a looming shortage of N95 masks needed to protect health care workers from contracting the new coronavirus. Bright also claimed that HHS Secretary Alex Azar in January disregarded his requests for funding to procure drugs, tests, and a vaccine for the new coronavirus in case the virus began to spread across the United States.

    In addition, Bright claimed Azar pressured him to allow the distribution of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 patients, which Bright opposed. He claimed that his decision to speak with a reporter about hydroxychloroquine's risks may have played a role in his reassignment.

    "HHS leadership, including … Azar … were already gunning for … Bright's removal. But they chose to remove him as BARDA director within days of publication of the article about chloroquine because they suspected that he was the source," the complaint alleged.

    Bright in the complaint also accused HHS officials of "cronyism" and "nepotism" that hindered the department's response to the epidemic. For example, Bright claimed that Bob Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, repeatedly asked Bright to fund scientifically questionable projects with connections to Kadlec's friends. Bright in the complaint claimed at least one company received contracts to help supply the U.S. National Stockpile despite objections from an internal advisory group.

    HHS responds

    In response to the allegations, Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokesperson, said, "Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing—critical to combatting Covid-19—where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort."

    Oakley added, "We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor" (Orr et al., Politico, 5/5; Restuccia, Wall Street Journal, 5/5; Florko, STAT News, 5/5; Kopp/Raman, Roll Call, 5/5; Abutaleb/McGinley, Washington Post, 5/5; Armour et al., Wall Street Journal, 5/5; New York Times, 5/6).

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