Ousted HHS official files whistleblower complaint on coronavirus response

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

Toya Sarno Jordan | Bloomberg via Getty Images

A top Health and Human Services official who says he was shoved out of his key coronavirus response job for pushing back on “efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections” filed a whistleblower complaint Tuesday charging “an abuse of authority or gross mismanagement” at the agency.

In his complaint, Dr. Rick Bright, who until last month was deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for preparedness and response and director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, described a chaotic response the virus at HHS.

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The chaos was fueled largely by “pressure from HHS leadership to ignore scientific merit and expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism,” the complaint says.

Bright filed the complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General. NBC News has reached out to an HHS spokesperson for comment.

The 58-page whistleblower complaint says he was transferred from BARDA “without warning or explanation” over his refusal to embrace hydroxychloroquine – the anti-malarial drug embraced and promoted by President Trump as a potential coronavirus remedy.

“I insisted on scientifically-vetted proposals, and I pushed for a more aggressive agency response to COVID-19. My supervisor became furious when Congress appropriated billions of dollars directly to my office, and when I spoke directly to members of Congress,” the complaint says.

Bright identified his supervisor as Dr. Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Kadlec — who reports to HHS head Alex Azar — is responsible for coordinating the coronavirus response from both the HHS and the federal government.

Bright says he “repeatedly clashed with Dr. Kadlec and other HHS leaders about the outsized role played by John Clerici, an industry consultant to pharmaceutical companies with a longstanding connection to Dr. Kadlec, in the award of government contracts.”

“Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, Dr. Bright became even more alarmed about the pressure that Dr. Kadlec and other government officials were exerting on BARDA to invest in drugs, vaccines, and other technologies without proper scientific vetting or that lacked scientific merit,” the complaint says.

It also portrays HHS as slow to react to the initial threat.

“Unlike Secretary Azar, Dr. Bright and other public health officials were fully aware of the emerging threat of COVID-19 by early January 2020,” the complaint says. While he and his staff pushed for genetic sequencing and other information about the virus, Bright says he initially encountered indifference which then developed into hostility from HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar, as Dr. Bright and his staff raised concerns about the virus and the urgent need to act.

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