Bright testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health  Thursday, May 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP) Rick Bright
Bright testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health Thursday, May 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

The top vaccine expert alleges that his bosses at the Department of Health and Human Services allowed “politics” and “cronyism” to dictate who received federal contracts. 

The whistleblower who was pushed out from his role as the director of a federal medical research agency claimed on Thursday that top Trump administration officials ignored his warnings about the coronavirus and were too slow to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic that has now infected more than 1.4 million Americans and killed at least 85,000.

In testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee, Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA), said that the Trump administration’s early failures to warn Americans of the dangers of COVID-19 cost lives. 

“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Bright said. “I believe by not telling America the truth or being totally transparent regardless of where the information was coming from, people were not as prepared as they could have been.” 

Bright said he was ousted from his role in April because he opposed the Trump administration’s efforts to widely distribute hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine—malaria drugs that President Trump championed as treatments for COVID-19 without any scientific evidence. 

Bright has since filed an 89-page whistleblower complaint alleging that he was retaliated against and that his bosses at the Department of Health and Human Services allowed “politics” and “cronyism” to dictate who received federal contracts. 

Here are four things from Bright’s complaint you need to know.

It’s All About Who You Know at HHS—and Has Been For Years

Bright says his problems with HHS leadership began long before the coronavirus. His complaint alleges that his supervisor, Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response Dr. Robert Kadlec and other HHS leaders allowed John Clerici—an industry consultant to pharmaceutical companies who also had a longstanding connection to Kadlec—to play a key role in awarding government contracts. 

In the summer of 2017, Bright says, Kadlec’s staff tried to extend a contract with Clerici’s client Aeolus Pharmaceuticals. Bright objected to those efforts because an internal review had concluded the contract should be allowed to expire without additional funding. According to the complaint, Clerici emphasized that Aelous’s CEO was a friend of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior advisor, and had “Hollywood connections.” 

“Such pressure was clearly improper, and had no place in a system designed to award funding based on scientific merit and a determination of what projects were important to protect the public health,” the complaint states. 

Even the Maker of an “Inferior” Drug Can Get $40 Million

Bright also says his relationship with Kadlec and others “became further strained” after he objected to a series of orders seeking to transfer $40 million from BARDA to the Strategic National Stockpile to allow it to purchase the drug Oseltamivir from a pharmaceutical company represented by Clerici. Bright says “a task force of experts had concluded [Oseltamivir] was an inferior choice” to a competing drug, but Kadlec ignored his objections and used funds to ultimately award the contract to Clerici’s client anyway.

Bright’s Boss Wanted to Invest Millions in an Untested “Cure All” for Viruses

Bright says tension within HHS escalated in fall 2019 after he ignored pressure from Kadlec to invest millions of dollars in a drug touted “as a ‘cure all’ for influenza, Ebola, and nearly every other virus,” the report states, even though the developer had not conducted clinical trials and there was no evidence of the drug’s effectiveness or safety in humans. The drug was developed at Emory University by Dr. George Painter, a person Bright describes as a “longtime friend of Dr. Kadlec’s.” 

Bright held firm, but in late February, Painter and Clerici sought funding for the drug again as a treatment for COVID-19. Instead of submitting a funding request and going through proper channels, they reached out to a personal friend of Kadlec’s for help. Bright expressed concern because Emory had still not completed clinical trials, even though it had separately obtained $30 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense. 

Bright was also concerned that Emory subverted the funding request and says in his complaint that it became “increasingly clear to Dr. Bright and others that Dr. Kadlec and Mr. Hamel were [trying] to circumvent the BARDA review process and to fund their ‘pet’ projects, regardless of scientific merit.” 

The award was not issued prior to Bright’s removal from BARDA.

Officials Bypassed Rules to Steer Contracts to a Company Making Hydroxychloroquine

According to the complaint, Kadlec invited Northwell Health—which was working with Alchem Laboratories on a regimen using hydroxychloroquine as part of a possible treatment for COVID-19—in March to work with a non-governmental consultant on his staff to submit a proposal for funding. Bright alleges that by directing a member of his staff to work as an agent of both the company and the government regarding the proposal, “Dr. Kadlec was inviting violations of federal procurement law.” 

Bright says he expressed his concerns about the contract and the consultant’s role in helping the companies with their proposal, and instructed a colleague to ensure that BARDA had a clinical review of Northwell and Alchem’s drug. Despite Bright’s efforts, Kadlec subverted him and directed other senior BARDA officials to award a $20.7 million contract to Alchem for work to be performed by Northwell Health.

“This contract was just one more example of Dr. Kadlec’s actions in bypassing all rules and procedures designed to ensure public safety and to avoid corruption in the award of billions of dollars in government funds,” Bright’s complaint states. “Indeed, 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.”