Director of US agency key to helming vaccine development leaves role suddenly

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Rick Bright, deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response for Health and Human Services (HHS), speaks during a House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

Toya Sarno Jordan | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rick Bright, one of the nation’s leading vaccine development experts and the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, is no longer leading the organization, officials told STAT.

The shakeup at the agency, known as BARDA, couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for the office, which invests in drugs, devices, and other technologies that help address infectious disease outbreaks and which has been at the center of the government’s coronavirus pandemic response.

Bright, whose departure was confirmed by three industry sources and two current Trump administration sources, will instead move into a narrower role at the National Institutes of Health overseeing a similar but limited public-private partnership aimed at vaccine development. Gary Disbrow, Bright’s former deputy at BARDA, will serve as the acting director of the office, an HHS spokesperson confirmed to STAT.

BARDA was expected to play an even larger role in the coming months; Congress more than tripled BARDA’s budget in the most recent coronavirus stimulus package. Already, the office has a role in some of the splashiest Covid-19 projects, including partnerships with Johnson & Johnson and Moderna Therapeutics, both of which are developing potential Covid-19 treatments.

BARDA has been plagued with management issues virtually since its creation in 2006, with much of the criticism aimed at a contracting department that some say is unresponsive to industry partners. The office has only had two permanent directors since its creation in 2006. Bright has led the organization since 2016.

None of the sources articulated the reason for Bright’s departure, though several mentioned recent chafing between Bright and Bob Kadlec, the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which has oversight over BARDA.

An HHS spokesperson confirmed that Bright will work on a recently announced NIH public-private partnership with 16 drug makers aimed at developing vaccines and treatments for Covid-19.

“Dr. Rick Bright will transfer the skills he has applied as Director of the [BARDA] to the [NIH]. … Dr. Bright brings extensive experience and expertise in facilitating powerful public-private partnerships that advance the health and well-being of the American people,” the spokesperson said.

Bright did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Bright’s career has largely centered around vaccine and drug development. His work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focused on influenza viruses, antiviral drugs and tests. He has also worked in the biotechnology industry and served as an advisor to the World Health Organization. Before becoming BARDA director, he led the agency’s Influenza and Emerging Infectious Diseases Division.

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