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The vaccine expert who oversaw the agency charged with research into countering the coronavirus said Wednesday that he was dismissed after resisting efforts by the Trump administration to expand the availability of an anti-malarial drug pushed by President Trump.
Rick Bright, Ph.D., said in a statement that he believed his transfer Tuesday to a role with fewer responsibilities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was in response to his call for the federal government to "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."
Bright, represented by the law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks -- whose famous clients included Christine Blasey Ford, who accused future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in 2018 -- had led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a small but important agency during a pandemic, since 2016 after working in its Influenza and Emerging Infectious Diseases Division. The unit, part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has been tasked with countering chemical, biological and radiological threats, as well as infectious diseases.
“I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science -- not politics or cronyism -- has to lead the way,” Bright said in his statement.
HHS told Fox News that Bright, who holds a Ph.D., has departed "BARDA to NIH where he’ll work on development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms."
The statement read, "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."
His role entailed overseeing the "advanced development and procurement of medical countermeasures against an array of threats to national security and the public’s health," according to his biography.
Bright said he led the government's efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the fast-spreading virus.
“Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with HHS political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early into vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives," he said. "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," Bright added.
However, Politico reported that Bright praised a recent acquisition of tens of millions of doses of malaria drugs. An unnamed source told the publication that Bright viewed the move as a win-win for HHS during an email exchange.
"If Bright opposed hydroxychloroquine, he certainly didn't make that clear from his email — quite the opposite," the official said.
Officials also told the website that Bright had sparred with leadership over his authority and decisionmaking for over a year.
Trump, at one point, touted the drug hydroxychloroquine during his daily coronavirus task force briefings as a possible cure for the pandemic. When asked Wednesday about Bright's allegations and dismissal, Trump said he "never heard of him," adding, "The guy says he was pushed out of a job, maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. You'd have to hear the other side."
A study released Tuesday of 368 patients in veterans' hospitals found no benefit from hydroxychloroquine, including more deaths compared to those given typical care.
"I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician," Bright said. “These drugs have potentially serious risks associated with them, including increased mortality observed in some recent studies in patients with COVID-19.”
Last month, in an effort to secure a stockpile of chloroquine, the Food and Drug Administration may have lowered its quality-control standards, souces told Reuters. Plants that produced ingredients for the Bayer AG drug Resochin in Pakistan and finished doses in India were found by local regulators to have "gross failure" and serious deficiencies.
Resochin contains chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. The effectiveness of chloroquine drugs as a life-saving drug for the coronavirus has yet to be proven.
Moving forward, Bright said he planned to file a whistleblower complaint with the HHS Inspector General. He said the Trump administration has politized BARDA's work and "has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit."
His attorneys said they planned to seek a stay of termination and request that Bright be allowed to remain in his role pending the investigation.
"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," Bright said.
Fox News' John Roberts contributed to this report.