Ousted HHS official Rick Bright files whistleblower complaint

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A former government scientist who claims he was removed from his post for disagreeing with the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus filed a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday, saying he was reassigned to a lesser role because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of an anti-malarial drug.

Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, filed the complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, a government agency responsible for whistleblower complaints. In it, Bright says that he was relegated to a lower position because he would not permit the widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that President Donald Trump touted as being effective in treating patients with COVID-19.

Bright said the Trump administration wanted to “flood” hot spots in New York and New Jersey with the drug.

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An analysis of the use of the drug last month to treat COVID-19 patients in U.S. veterans hospitals found no benefit to using the drug and that there were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care.

The nationwide study was not a rigorous experiment. But with 368 patients, it’s the largest look so far at hydroxychloroquine with or without the antibiotic azithromycin for COVID-19.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors against prescribing the drug except in hospitals and research studies. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side effects among coronavirus patients taking hydroxychloroquine or the related drug chloroquine.

The decades-old drugs, also prescribed for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause a number of side effects, including heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage.

Bright alleges in the complaint that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services had tried to promote hydroxychloroquine “as a panacea.” The officials also “demanded that New York and New Jersey be ‘flooded’ with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA,” the complaint says.

But Bright opposed broad use of the drug, arguing the scientific evidence wasn’t there to back up its use in coronavirus patients. He felt an urgent need to tell the public that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to support using the drugs for COVID-19 patients, the complaint states.

The complaint said Bright had complained officials had “refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public” and spoke to a reporter who was working on a story about the drug.

He said he had to tell the public about the lack of science backing up its use, despite the drug being pushed by the president at press briefings, “to protect it from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” the complaint says.

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Bright also said the Trump administration rejected his warnings on COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. He said he “acted with urgency” to address the growing spread of COVID-19 after the World Health Organization issued a warning in January.

He said he “encountered resistance from HHS leadership, including Health and Human Services Secretary (Alex) Azar, who appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic event.”

In the complaint, Bright says he wants to return to his position as the director and a full investigation.

A spokeswoman for HHS has said it was Bright who had requested an emergency use authorization for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. For his part, Bright said he had insisted that the authorization be limited to a restricted group of patients, those hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 under the supervision of a doctor.

Fox News' John Roberts and The Associated Press contributed to this report.