A top Health and Human Services official who said he was shoved out of a key coronavirus response job for pushing back against "efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections" submitted his resignation Tuesday, his lawyers said.
In an interview with NBC News, the official, Dr. Rick Bright, said the lack of transparency by the Trump administration and political interference at public health agencies was getting worse.
“From the very beginning of this outbreak, this administration has not told Americans the truth about this virus,” Bright said Thursday. “The political interference has not stopped at all. I believe it's intensified.”
“It's dangerous, it's reckless, and it's causing lives to be lost every day,” he added.
Bright filed a whistleblower complaint in May charging "an abuse of authority or gross mismanagement" at the Department of Health and Human Services. He said his resistance to political pressure led to his being removed from his post as deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response and director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.
The 89-page whistleblower complaint says Bright was transferred from BARDA "without warning or explanation" over his refusal to embrace hydroxychloroquine — the anti-malarial drug promoted by President Donald Trump as a potential coronavirus remedy.
He was transferred to the National Institutes of Health, where he said he has been sidelined. An amended whistleblower complaint said he had been assigned no meaningful work since Sept. 4, after he completed his previous assignment. "He has been idle for weeks," said the amended complaint, also sent Tuesday.
In the Thursday interview, Bright told NBC News that in September his proposed plans for a robust national Covid-19 testing program - including the testing of asymptomatic individuals - were rejected for political considerations.
Bright said the NIH director, Francis Collins, praised his “great ideas” but told him he couldn’t put them forward out of fear of “stepping on the toes of others in the administration who may not be ready for that.”
“He did not want to pay the political price of moving those concepts forward, because he was afraid of the retaliation or the pushback,” Bright said.
He said that the issue of testing was a delicate subject in senior leadership meetings of public health experts, who were concerned about contradicting the White House’s approach to the virus.
“We agreed that it was probably best to remove the term ‘strategy’ or ‘plan,’” Bright said. “We shouldn't call it that, so we wouldn't have the ire of the administration on us. We should tiptoe around the terminology.”
Bright said he and other colleagues expressed concern that political appointees – including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin - were making decisions about contracts for diagnostic tests and other critical supplies.
White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern rejected Bright's allegations.
“Everything this person says is wrong, which is why he was invited to find employment elsewhere," Morgenstern said. "The Trump Administration’s whole-of-America response has nothing to do with politics.“
An NIH spokesperson said in a statement: “NIH can confirm that Dr. Bright resigned on October 6, effective that day. NIH does not discuss personnel issues beyond confirming employment.”
The Treasury Department did not respond to requests for comment.
After Bright went public with his May complaint, an HHS representative said he was transferred because his help was needed at NIH. The complaint is "filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation," HHS said in May.
During his time at BARDA, Bright fast-tracked one of the treatments Trump has received for Covid-19, Regeneron's antibody cocktail. It was the first contract he put in place as BARDA's director to respond to the coronavirus.
Bright said the emergency use authorizations are an important tool, but that they must be used only after independent evaluation of sufficient data demonstrates safety and effectiveness.
“The scientific experts at the FDA need to see all of the data from the companies, not cherry-picked data,” he said. “We cannot drive science through press releases.”
Bright also said he feels some relief after resigning from government, but he fears that the pandemic may get much worse in the coming months, especially if compounded by influenza and other respiratory virus outbreaks.
“I think we're going into the darkest winter in modern history because of what's in front of us,” he said. “Because this administration still does not have a plan."