Earlier this week, Dr. Rick Bright claimed that President Donald Trump had him removed as both the director of the United States Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
The doctor alleged that his removal from the COVID response team was a result of challenging President Trump on the advocacy of hydroxychloroquine as a possible coronavirus cure. He warned that the decision, which he alleged was due to “politics and cronyism,” would cost lives.
However, Bright’s former HHS colleagues have questioned his version of events, claiming the doctor had actually helped procure a substantial supply of the drug for use in the United States.
Despite these counter claims, the doctor has filed a whistleblower complaint in relation to his removal and insists that he was against the use of hydroxychloroquine, which studies suggest does not work to combat COVID-19.
Dr. Bright’s press release
On Wednesday, April 22, Dr. Bright released a press release through his lawyers stating that he had been removed from his dual positions by the Trump administration and transferred to “a more limited and less impactful position at the National Institutes of Health.”
In the statement, the doctor said that he believed the reason for his reassignment was “in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.”
This last line appears to have largely been in reference to hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that Trump and many conservative pundits have advocated as a possible cure for COVID-19.
In his statement, Dr. Bright went on to say, “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science – not politics or cronyism – has to lead the way.”
Bright, who is a globally-recognized expert on infectious diseases, said that “sidelining” him during the COVID-19 pandemic would cost lives. He was therefore filing a whistleblower complaint to have the General Inspector of the HHS investigate his reassignment.
Was Dr. Bright removed for challenging Trump?
After Bright came forward with his complaint, Trump claimed to have “never heard of him” and to not know about the doctor’s ouster.
Some of Bright’s former colleagues have challenged his version of events. According to a Politico investigation, multiple people at HHS have suggested that Bright was actually instrumental in the acquisition of tens of millions of hydroxychloroquine doses.
A Reuters report from April 16 unearthed emails that revealed a concerted effort by the administration to acquire a large stockpile of the drugs to give Trump a “win.” The efforts included an acknowledgement of “potentially serious issues with” Resochin.
Resochin is a trade name for chloroquine, which, like hydroxychloroquine, has been in use for years in the US as a treatment for malaria and autoimmune diseases like lupus.
Though Bright’s emails weren’t made public in the Reuters report, an HHS official who has seen copies of the email exchange told Politico, “If Bright opposed hydroxychloroquine, he certainly didn’t make that clear from his email – quite the opposite.”
HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley claimed that Bright “requested an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] for donations of chloroquine that Bayer and Sandoz recently made to the Strategic National Stockpile for use on COVID-19 patients.”
If Bright was not fired for challenging the administration, his firing possibly came as a result of BARDA’s slow response to the COVID-19 crisis. At least, that is what a former official told Politico, saying, “Rather than prioritizing therapeutics that could be available in weeks, Bright focused on products that would take weeks or months.”
Trump advocates for hydroxychloroquine
Regardless of the reason for Bright’s reassignment, the Trump administration has actively advocated for the use of hydroxychloroquine. The president has repeatedly pushed for the use of the drug, both in daily COVID-19 press briefings and on his personal Twitter account.
On March 21, he tweeted, “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” Azithromycin is an antibiotic and therefore not intended to treat viral infections like COVID-19.
In late March, under the guidance of the Trump administration, the FDA authorized the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. The agency suggested that the drugs could be “prescribed by doctors to hospitalized teen and adult patients with COVID-19” when other treatments were not available.
However, recent studies of COVID-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine have cast doubts on the drug’s supposed effectiveness. A French study of hundreds of patients found “no evidence of clinical efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in patients.”
A similar study at Veterans Health Administration medical centers found hydroxychloroquine treatment did not reduce the need for ventilation among COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, fatality rates for those who were given the drug were higher than those who did not receive it.
Since those studies were published, Trump has ceased publicly advocating for the use of hydroxychloroquine.
However, in a press briefing on April 23, Trump questioned whether “ultraviolet or just very powerful light” could be used to kill the virus. The president also wondered if a disinfectant could be used internally as a treatment, “by injection inside or almost a cleaning.”