Cronyism and a lack of urgency at the Department of Health and Human Services stymied the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the first critical weeks of the crisis, according to a whistleblower complaint released Friday.
Rick Bright, a former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, alleges corruption and incompetence among leaders of the pandemic response in a 89-page complaint filed with the Office of Special Counsel.
Bright, who was involuntarily reassigned to a lower-ranked role at the National Institutes of Health in late April, said he spent his career preparing for a national crisis like COVID-19 but requests for political favors got in his way.
For example, he said he was asked to consider an unproved drug promoted by John Clerici, a pharmaceutical industry consultant with ties to Robert Kadlec, an HHS assistant secretary, as a treatment for COVID-19 despite a lack of clinical evidence. Bright’s lack of action on the request “clearly frustrated Dr. Kadlec and further strained their relationship,” the complaint reads.
The complaint also alleges that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that a prohibited personnel practice occurred” when he was transferred and that Bright should be reinstated as BARDA director.
An HHS spokeswoman said Bright was not demoted.
“Dr. 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,” Caitlin Oakley said in a statement. “We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said late Tuesday that the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee would schedule hearings on the issue.
“That will happen, I believe, next week to bring before Congress the testimony of Dr. Bright. It’s very damaging,” said Pelosi on MSNBC. “But you know, the thing is is that this points to the larger issue: Where are the ethics in all of this?”
Bright alleges that HHS leaders ignored his early warnings about a looming shortage of N95 masks and, in meetings with HHS Secretary Alex Azar in late January, brushed off his request for funding for drugs, tests and a vaccine in case the novel coronavirus began spreading across the United States.
Bright said he pressed for diagnostic tests to determine if the virus was already spreading in airports across the country. But he was excluded from a subsequent COVID-19 meeting and was told it was because he had offended Azar and started a “s— storm.”
At the time, Azar insisted in public statements that the risk of the coronavirus to Americans was low and that the national stockpile had enough masks, even though just 30 million N95 masks of the 3.5 billion needed were in supply.
So far, more than 70,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19.
An early offer to ramp up manufacturing of N95 masks by a company called Prestige Ameritech was ignored, Bright alleges, even as the company’s chief executive warned that it was fielding orders from Hong Kong and China, and that U.S. reliance on Chinese supply would spiral into a crisis.
Bright said he warned about the potential for deadly side effects of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, antimalarial medications that the White House has touted as therapeutics for COVID-19.
Though hydroxycloroquine has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19, Trump has championed the drug in news conferences and tweets. Hydroxycloroquine was sought out by at least 22 states and hoarded by some health care providers, leading to shortages for rheumatoid arthritis and lupus patients who need the drug for its approved uses.
The Trump administration reportedly moved to lift a ban on factories in India with records of unsafe manufacturing in order to supply the drug.
On the same day Bright was removed from his BARDA position last month, the FDA issued a warning against the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19, outside of a hospital or clinical trial because the drug can cause cardiac arrest.
According to Bright, Kadlec asked one of the consultants who contracted with HHS to also work for Northwell Health, a major health care system in New York, on its proposal for funding to make hydroxychloroquine available in combination with a component of heartburn drug Pepcid AC. Kadlec excluded Bright from emails about Northwell’s proposal, the complaint alleges.
“Dr. Bright opposed the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as lacking scientific merit, even though the Administration promoted it as a panacea and demanded that New York and New Jersey be ‘flooded’ with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA,” the complaint reads.
Following his removal as BARDA director, HHS officials told the media that Bright’s relationship with Kadlec had deteriorated.
Years of tension
Bright alleges that he has been pressured to award contracts to politically connected companies since 2017, when Kadlec assumed the role of HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response.
“Dr. Kadlec cultivated an environment in which industry partners regularly bypassed agency procedures designed to prevent influence peddling and conflicts of interest, forcing Dr. Bright and his deputies to spend valuable time — including during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis — fending off improper and often illegal requests from private industry and their agents,” the complaint says.
It goes on to state: “Bright will be able to demonstrate that his protected disclosures were a contributing factor in the agency’s personnel action because of Dr. Kadlec and Secretary Azar’s awareness of his whistleblowing activity, and the timing of the adverse action. Dr. Kadlec’s displays of frustration towards Dr. Bright’s protected disclosures are evidence that Dr. Bright’s protected activity was a contributing factor in his ultimate removal.”
The complaint alleges that Bright faced retaliation for his warnings and that Kadlec fabricated a “false narrative” to justify his removal. According to the complaint, HHS made no effort to involve Bright in the “bold plan to accelerate the development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms” that it initially said was the reason for his transfer.
“Logically, it makes no sense that HHS would appoint Dr. Bright to carry out a plan to increase the nation’s coronavirus testing capacity in the midst of a global pandemic without at least apprising him of that plan. HHS has since claimed that it transferred Dr. Bright to NIH because Dr. Bright mismanaged his office and mistreated his staff,” the complaint reads. “Dr. Bright’s most recent performance review and long list of accomplishments as Director of BARDA demonstrate his strong performance and effectiveness as a leader in this position.”