Updated Apr 23, 2020 - Health

Head of vaccine agency says he was ousted for resisting hydroxychloroquine

President Trump has repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rick Bright said Wednesday he believes he was removed from his role as director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority this week after clashing with Health and Human Services leadership over his attempts to limit the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus. The New York Times first reported the news.

Why it matters: President Trump and his allies in conservative media have repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, as a potential game-changer for treating the coronavirus. Health experts have taken a more cautious approach, noting that the drug has shown anecdotal promise but that its efficacy has not yet been proven.

  • Asked about Bright at the White House coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, Trump responded: "I never heard of him."

What to watch: Bright, who is a career official and not a political appointee, said he will request that the inspector general of HHS open an investigation into the politicization of his agency.

What he's saying: Per Bright's statement:

“I believe this transfer 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. I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way.
I have spent my entire career in vaccine development, in the government with CDC and BARDA and also in the biotechnology industry. My professional background has prepared me for a moment like this — to confront and defeat a deadly virus that threatens Americans and people around the globe. To this point, I have led the government’s efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with H.H.S. political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early into vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives. I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.
Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit.
While I am prepared to look at all options and to think ‘outside the box’ for effective treatments, I rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public. I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician.
These drugs have potentially serious risks associated with them, including increased mortality observed in some recent studies in patients with COVID-19.
Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safely and effectively address this urgent public health crisis.
I will request that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services investigate the manner in which this administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections and efforts that lack scientific merit.
Rushing blindly towards unproven drugs can be disastrous and result in countless more deaths. Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics.”

What they're saying: "Dr. Bright has departed BARDA to NIH where he'll work on development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms," HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said in a statement to Axios.

  • "As it relates to chloroquine, it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) 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. The EUA is what made the donated product available for use in combating COVID-19."
  • The White House declined to comment.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from the HHS.

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