Dr. Rick Bright made headlines last month for his role as a whistleblower during the coronavirus crisis. After filing a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in early May, he later testified before the House Energy and Commerce Panel about the U.S.’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. CBS News’ 60 Minutes also featured Bright in an interview where he discussed the lack of preparation in equipping healthcare personnel for the pandemic in the U.S.
Bright’s whistleblower complaint details the history of his work in immunology. It states that he is “one of the nation’s leading experts in pandemic preparedness and response and in the design of diagnostic tools required to track pandemics.” He worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) evaluating and developing tests for antiviral drugs before working for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Bright worked specifically in the HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) Influenza Division International Program as a Program Lead. By 2014, he became the director of the Influenza and Emerging Diseases Division. In 2016, HHS selected Bright to become the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and the Director of BARDA. In addition to these responsibilities, he also was involved in scientific advisory positions for the U.S. Department of Defense and the World Health Organization (WHO), specifically working to “advance vaccines and public health around the world.”
According to the complaint, upon understanding the severity of COVID-19 and its effect on the American people, Bright proposed that the U.S. government dedicate “appropriate resources and expert personnel” to fight the virus. However, “political leadership” in the HHS consistently criticized Bright and his efforts “to invest early in vaccine development as well as in critical supplies such as masks, respirators, and swabs,” which were already in short supply.
Additionally, the complaint states that the HHS disagreed with Bright’s disapproval of “the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine,” given that they had yet to be scientifically vetted. He was worried about the drugs imported to the U.S. from “factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA.” After Bright had tried to report his concerns internally, he felt that he had no choice and worked with a reporter to get the news out to the American people about the dangers of the drug that was promoted due to “political pressure.”
After the reporter published the article with information from Bright, the retaliation from HHS began: on April 17th, he was removed from his position as Director of BARDA and placed in a different role at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NPR reported that Bright said his removal from the director of BARDA was due to his “insistence” that the U.S. pursue “scientifically vetted solutions” to defend against the coronavirus.
Since his whistleblower complaint went public, Bright has been open about his concerns regarding the U.S.’s pandemic preparedness and its focus on promoting chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as drugs to treat COVID-19. On May 14th, Bright gave a testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Panel, during which he gave a chilling remark: if the government doesn’t take measures to treat the pandemic, “2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history.” PBS reported that Bright remarked in his testimony on the fact that the public health education about COVID-19, like the concept of social distancing, was not promoted as early as it should have been (according to Bright, “in January and February.”) Promoting education about safety and public health earlier, Bright stated, could have saved more lives. During his testimony, he also talked about the emails he had received from the owner of Prestige Ameritech (a “surgical mask producer,” according to the complaint) Mike Bowen about the mask and N95 respirator supply being “completely decimated,” yet even then the HHS did not seem to heed his warnings about preparedness and instead retaliated against him. Instead, NPR reported that Bright said his concerns about the pandemic were termed “a commotion.”
Dr. Rick Bright’s story is a sobering one and a lesson about the importance of whistleblowing. Had the HHS took his concerns seriously, it seems that lives could have been saved.
Learn more about whistleblowing and reporting fraud during the coronavirus
NPR report on the whistleblower complaint
NPR article on the significance of Bright’s whistleblowing action
Forbes article about the disclosure
Business Insider article on Bright’s views