WASHINGTON — A key House subcommittee chairwoman said on Thursday that she planned to hold hearings into the departure of Rick Bright, who said he was removed as the head of an agency involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine after he pressed for rigorous vetting of unproven drugs embraced by President Donald Trump to combat the virus.
“I know that life is difficult for members to travel, but we can’t let that get in the way and I’m sure that other members would want to be a part of a hearing as well,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee. Eshoo, D-Calif., helped create the agency that Bright oversaw, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
The congresswoman spoke as Bright’s lawyers, in a statement, said that officials at the Health and Human Services Department, which BARDA is a part of, had made “demonstrably false” statements about Bright’s tenure, and that they planned to file whistleblower complaints against the agency.
Bright was abruptly dismissed this week from his BARDA post and as the department’s deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response, and was given a narrower job at the National Institutes of Health. In response, he issued a remarkable public statement accusing the Trump administration of putting cronyism over science, especially with two malaria drugs that the president has promoted as game changers in the treatment of the virus.
Eshoo said that among the witnesses she would like to hear from are the secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, and an assistant secretary, Dr. Robert P. Kadlec, who supervised Bright.
“I think the American people deserve to know what happened here, because all of our collective fate rested on” the development of a vaccine, she said.
The Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, formally requested that the Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general also look into Bright’s removal and transfer.
“Removing Dr. Bright in the midst of a pandemic would raise serious concerns under any circumstances, but his allegations that political considerations influenced this decision heighten those concerns and demand full accountability,” Pallone wrote.
In his statement, Bright said: “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.”
Officials at the department have disputed Bright’s account and insisted there were problems with his management style. But they have so far refused to say so on the record.
A performance review from September signed by Kadlec concluded, “Bright continues to lead change in BARDA with deftness and enthusiasm.”
And in an internal email sent Tuesday evening, Kadlec again offered praise as he described Bright’s new role in a “Shark Tank”-style effort to develop diagnostics related to the coronavirus, a collaboration between his former agency and the National Institutes of Health.
“Rick brings extensive experience and expertise in facilitating powerful public-private partnerships that advance the health and well-being of the American people,” Kadlec wrote in the email. “Under Rick’s leadership, BARDA has made tremendous progress and with the skills and knowledge he has amassed across a long career in virology and, in particular, over the past four years as our BARDA director, I know he will drive and enable” the new effort.
Eshoo said that she had worked with Bright and that he was “a thoroughbred professional.”
“This is a terrible, swift sword that has come at science, and Dr. Bright,” she said.
BARDA is a technical agency, established after the Sept. 11 attacks, that works to counter infectious disease threats. It has flexibility to fund promising research and to team up with pharmaceutical companies to develop countermeasures necessary to protect the health of the American public.
Bright, a virologist, arrived at the agency when Barack Obama was president. He ran its anti-viral program, and was then promoted to other jobs, including heading the influenza and emerging infectious disease branch and working on the response to the Zika virus, before becoming its director in 2016.
“This is the removal of somebody with a very clear scientific mind and good judgment,” said Marie-Paule Kieny, a French scientist and former official at the World Health Organization, who worked with Bright on developing flu vaccines. “Rick is very reflective. He is not somebody who gets excited or screams. He looks at the evidence, he looks at the science and then he confers.”
Like many career officials who worked under Obama, he was not greeted warmly by the Trump team. Officials at the Health and Human Services Department described Bright as difficult and high maintenance, despite the favorable review he had been given by Kadlec. And people familiar with the discussions said department officials had been talking about moving him out of his role for several months.
In a statement on Wednesday night aimed at disputing Bright’s claim that he objected to the way the administration wanted to distribute chloroquines, a department spokeswoman said Bright had been the person who had put in for an emergency-use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration. A person familiar with Bright’s account said that was his compromise to get some regulations in place for how the drugs were used.