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Watchdog office says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe ouster of vaccine official was retaliatory, his lawyers say

The Office of Special Counsel said it would recommend Rick Bright be reinstated during its investigation, according to his lawyers

Rick Bright was recently removed as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. He alleges that action was retaliatory. (Health and Human Services Department/AP)

The Office of Special Counsel has determined there are “reasonable grounds” to believe a former top vaccine official was removed from his post last month for retaliatory reasons and plans to recommend the Department of Health and Human Services reinstate him while it investigates, the official’s lawyers said Friday.

Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was removed April 20 after having served as BARDA director for nearly four years. He was reassigned to a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health that HHS touted as part of a “bold new plan” to improve testing to defeat covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Bright filed a whistleblower complaint this week that alleged he was reassigned because he resisted pressure from the department’s political leadership to make “potentially harmful drugs widely available,” including chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. President Trump has repeatedly pushed both as possible coronavirus cures.

Bright said in the complaint that he tried to “prioritize science and safety over political expediency” and raised concerns over the safety and efficacy of the drugs.

OSC recommendations are not binding. Officials at the federal watchdog office said they could not comment on the status of an open investigation.

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement, “This is a personnel matter that is currently under review. However, HHS strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright.”

Bright’s lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, had requested that he be reinstated while his complaint is investigated.

In a statement Friday, Katz and Banks said they were notified late Thursday afternoon that OSC had determined there was enough evidence to suggest Bright’s “involuntary removal” was retaliatory and that the office would contact HHS to request the action be stayed for 45 days.

“The OSC has made a threshold determination that HHS violated the Whistleblower Protection Act by removing Dr. Bright from his position because he made protected disclosures in the best interest of the American public,” the lawyers’ statement said.

Bright is scheduled to testify before Congress next week about the circumstances of his reassignment.

Several current and former officials said Bright’s departure was discussed among top HHS leaders for several months. In his 89-page complaint, Bright says he clashed with his boss, Robert Kadlec, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, for at least two years.

Bright alleges in the complaint that Kadlec and others pressured him to buy drugs and medical products for the nation’s stockpile of emergency medical equipment from companies that were linked politically to Kadlec, and that he resisted such efforts. One current and one former senior administration official contested the allegations against Kadlec. HHS has not publicly addressed the contents of the complaint.

Bright provided nearly 80 pages of emails and other documentation with the complaint.

In his complaint, Bright portrays himself as trying to sound the alarm about the virus beginning in early January. He says he called for the rapid development of treatments and vaccines and pushed to obtain samples of the virus from China to aid in the development of medical countermeasures but alleges he was met with indifference from top agency leaders.

Bright had tweeted in late January that the flu kills many more people in the United States than the coronavirus, a comparison several top government officials made at the time. There were few confirmed U.S. cases in January and February.

The complaint describes one clash in mid-March, after Bayer offered to donate 3 million chloroquine pills to the national stockpile, which is run by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. BARDA officials raised concerns over the donation because of a lack of evidence over the drug’s safety or efficacy for covid-19.

The Bayer pills came from facilities in Pakistan and India that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and therefore not approved for use in the United States, the complaint states.

In an email included as part of the exhibits of Bright’s complaint, a BARDA official wrote, “there are safety liabilities associated with the drug … accepting the donation could send a signal that we are not concerned about the risk.” The official added, “I do not believe we should accept the donation [of chloroquine from Bayer] until we have an understanding on the clinical utility of the drug. Accepting the donation could lead to widespread use that is not supported by any clinical data.”

The Bayer donation ultimately went forward. Bright received an “urgent directive” from HHS General Counsel Bob Charrow to make the drug widely accessible, outside of hospital settings and without close physician supervision, according to the complaint.

“Dr. Bright should not be denied the right to have his complaint investigated fully and fairly before he is formally transferred to NIH — a move that will harm not only him, but the country as well. This country is in an unprecedented health crisis and needs the expertise of Dr. Bright to lead the nation’s efforts to combat covid-19,” Katz and Banks said in their statement. “We hope the Secretary will grant the Special Counsel’s request and allow Dr. Bright, one of nation’s leading vaccine scientists, to return to his position leading BARDA and serving his country.”