WASHINGTON — A government whistleblower ousted from a leading role in battling COVID-19 alleged Thursday that the Trump administration has intensified its campaign to punish him for revealing shortcomings in the U.S. response.
Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said in an amended complaint filed with a federal watchdog agency that he has been relegated to a lesser role in his new assignment at the National Institutes of Health, unable to lend his full expertise to the battle against COVID-19.
The complaint also said that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is leading a "coordinated effort" to undermine Bright in his new duties, and that has led to former colleagues shunning the sidelined scientist.
The pressure is coming straight from the top, the complaint said, with President Donald Trump calling Bright an "angry, disgruntled employee" and setting the tone for a campaign of "public disparagement" to "unnerve and intimidate" him.
Bright, a vaccine expert, was supposed to be working on virus diagnostic tests in his new job at NIH. But he "is cut off from all vaccine work, cut off from all therapeutic work, and has a very limited role in the diagnostic work," said the complaint. "His extremely narrow role is confined to making contracts with diagnostics companies that have already developed diagnostics, to scale up their production."
Where Bright previously oversaw 200 or more projects at BARDA, he's now been given responsibility for five to eight projects, involving diagnostic tests already approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The complaint said former colleagues of Bright's at his old agency are now avoiding him. It described a conversation with one such colleague, who is not identified by name.
The former colleague is quoted as saying that the agency's new acting director, Dr. Gary Disbrow, had warned him "to be 'very careful'" about dealing with Bright.
The complaint said Disbrow had explained that Azar "was very angry with Dr. Bright and was 'on the war path.' (Disbrow) explained that Secretary Azar directed HHS employees to refrain from doing anything that would help Dr. Bright be successful in his new role."
Disbrow also said that "Secretary Azar said that if anyone were to help Dr. Bright be successful, 'there would be hell to pay,'" the complaint said.
HHS spokesman Michael Caputo said on Twitter that Bright's complaint is "filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation that have been completely debunked. When will the media stop carrying his water?"
HHS released a statement attributed to Disbrow on Thursday saying: "I did not make any of these statements and Secretary Azar has never spoken to me in the manner alleged. I have also never instructed any BARDA employee not to talk to Rick. In fact, I had a conversation with him yesterday about how to collaborate ... I am confused by these untrue statements and allegations, which distract from the important work we are doing in response to the coronavirus."
But Bright's lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, responded that he "stands by his allegations in the complaint."
The lawyers say Bright's early warnings about the coronavirus have been proved right and "the failure of the administration to heed those warnings has had a catastrophic effect on this country."
The Office of Special Counsel, an agency that investigates complaints from government whistleblowers, previously found "reasonable grounds" that Bright was punished after trying to warn the White House and HHS early this year that the nation was unprepared for the coronavirus outbreak.
Bright is a flu and infectious-disease expert with 10 years at the biomedical agency. His particular focus was on vaccine development. At NIH, he was supposed to be working on coronavirus testing, but he is now alleging that he has been sidelined.
The agency that Bright had led is a unit of HHS that focuses on countermeasures to infectious diseases and bioterrorism. Bright had received a job performance review of outstanding before he was summarily transferred in April, with his agency email cut off without warning.
Investigators earlier requested that Azar reinstate Bright in his old job while they looked into his allegations. In the complaint, Bright's lawyers ask that Azar formally remove himself from that decision.
In his initial complaint filed last month, Bright said the final straw for his bosses seemed to come when he resisted efforts to flood the New York area with hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug once touted by Trump as a "game changer" for COVID-19. Bright said he argued successfully for limiting approved use of the drug to certain settings, such as hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.
Trump has since revealed that he has taken hydroxychloroquine, apparently to try to prevent infection after several White House staffers tested positive for the coronavirus.
The FDA recently revoked its emergency use approval for the malaria drug's use on COVID-19 patients, citing known heart risks and unproven benefits against the virus.