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Science & Technology

A Scientist For The Federal Government Files A Whistleblower Complaint

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Rick Bright, a scientist for the federal government, has filed a whistleblower complaint after being transferred to a new position last month. He was serving as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, known as BARDA, when he was removed. In his complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, Bright says he raised concerns about the need to prepare for the coronavirus in January, but he encountered opposition from the Trump administration. He also makes numerous additional allegations of government wrongdoing. Well, one of his attorneys, Debra Katz, joins us now.

Welcome.

DEBRA KATZ: Thank you.

CHANG: So give us the top line for what you are alleging in this complaint.

KATZ: My top line is that Dr. Bright is internationally recognized for his work in this area. He's one of the nation's leading experts in pandemic preparedness and response. He should be at his desk today, working to keep all of us safe. And instead, he was moved - stripped of his duties, moved out of this vital role and put in a job that, to this date, has no duties and responsibilities because he objected to efforts by the administration to, essentially, sell snake oil to promote chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a panacea when they knew it wasn't.

And Dr. Bright wants the American public to know that science should prevail here. If we band together to fight this horrible pandemic, we will get places. But it will not happen if the administration takes out science and puts instead...

CHANG: And if I may, what...

KATZ: Yeah, sorry.

CHANG: ...Evidence do you have that Dr. Bright was removed directly because of objections he was making about hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine? These are treatments that President Trump had been pushing but that Dr. Bright had problems with. What makes you think that he was directly removed as a result of those objections he was making?

KATZ: Several days after Reuters ran an article that criticized the administration's promotion of these drugs, the administration concluded that he was probably the source of those allegations. And they removed him from a role that he had been doing an outstanding job in. He had also clashed with the administration repeatedly when he objected to steering contracts to cronies of the HHS leadership rather than promoting real clients.

And lastly, he clashed with Secretary Azar when he said at the very beginning of this pandemic that this is coming to America. This idea of containing this virus is not going to work, and we need to be ready. And he was removed from those meetings when he acted with a great deal of urgency...

CHANG: Can we talk about...

KATZ: ...Saying we had to be ready.

CHANG: Can we talk about Secretary Azar? This is the secretary of...

KATZ: Sure.

CHANG: ...Health and Human Services. This complaint alleges that Bright repeatedly raised concerns about the seriousness of the coronavirus, but his concerns were dismissed by Secretary Azar as well as by other officials. Why does Bright claim that, that he wasn't taken as seriously as he had hoped to be taken? What facts support that specifically?

KATZ: He was in a meeting with Secretary Azar on January 23.

CHANG: OK.

KATZ: And when he came to the meeting, he said specifically, we are not ready, but we can get ahead of this. We are lacking crucial supplies, for example, masks - N95 masks. There's already been a study that this country needed 3.5 billion masks for medical personnel and first responders to be able to meet the medical needs and the needs of people if they got sick. And we have 100 million. That is a huge shortfall.

And he raised these issues and said, we need money. We need to start actively going after this to develop vaccines. And he was never allowed to go to those meetings again. He was told when he was - when he questioned why he was not allowed to go to those meetings, that he, quote, "caused a s**tstorm in his meeting with Secretary Azar." He did not like what he had to say. And one of the things he said is this policy of containment is not going to work. This virus is coming here, and it may already be in this country. And instead, we need to be ready and combat it and fight hard. And he was removed from those meetings, so that - at their first interaction, that's what happened.

CHANG: He was iced out of these meetings after he raised those concerns. OK.

KATZ: Absolutely; and he was...

CHANG: OK. That's what you allege.

KATZ: Absolutely.

CHANG: Now, this complaint also alleges cronyism within his former department. Can you elaborate on why you are making those allegations about cronyism?

KATZ: Yes. As we detailed in the complaint, Dr. Kadlec steered contracts to friends of his over the objections of scientists who were studying these same proposals, where - a panel of scientists would look at two competing drugs and say, Drug A is the better drug. This is what we should purchase for our national stockpile. Instead, Dr. Kadlec ignored the recommendations for these drugs of these experts and scientists and, instead, steered contracts to those with whom he had prior contacts, and they were friends of his. So we had five very concrete examples in the complaint where Dr. Kadlec ignored the recommendations of scientists and, instead, went with people that were promoting drugs who he knew.

CHANG: I do want to point out, you know, going back to his departure, friction between Bright and other officials in the Trump administration had predated the pandemic, going back maybe as far as two years. So how can you definitively say that his reassignment was retribution for raising concerns about COVID-19 when there was clearly tensions before that? Even as alleged in this complaint, there were tensions. We have about 30 seconds left.

KATZ: Sure. Well, there's always an event that - the straw that broke the camel's back, right? In this event, he clashed with the administration for a while because he was insisting that science prevail and that contracts not be steered to people who were friends of Kadlec.

CHANG: All right.

KATZ: But the last event was his objection to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

CHANG: OK.

KATZ: And he was canned.

CHANG: Debra Katz is one of the attorneys for Rick Bright, a federal vaccine official who was removed from his job last month.

Thank you very much.

KATZ: Thank you - appreciate it.

CHANG: And NPR reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services for comment on this story. Spokesperson Caitlin Oakley responded that Bright was, quote, "transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing critical to combating COVID-19" and expressed deep disappointment that he has yet to report to work. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.