Whistleblower Exposes Dangers of a Politicized Pandemic Response

“Science – not politics or cronyism – must lead the way to combat this deadly virus.”

That was Dr. Rick Bright’s guiding principle in his job at the U.S. government’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as he confronted the threat of  the COVID-19 pandemic. Bright alleges that his dedication to that principle prompted punishment rather than praise.

Bright says that beginning in January 2020, HHS officials not only ignored his efforts to sound the alarm for a robust pandemic response “led by science,” but that his superiors took reprisals against him for doing so. He alleges those reprisals climaxed last month with HHS transferring him from a position leading HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to what he describes as “a more limited and less impactful position.” Bright subsequently filed an official whistleblower complaint on May 5. In testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health yesterday,  Bright described a damning pattern of government failures to respond to his exhortations for precautions to protect the American people from the novel coronavirus.

One of those precautions was his call for urgent steps to secure adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical supplies for health workers and the American public. Bright says that those calls “didn’t result in action [and] I was told my urgings were causing a commotion and I was removed from those meetings.” Bright’s assertion that the Trump administration was willfully ignorant of the need for proactive preparations, including adequate PPE supplies, is appalling given the dire effect of PPE supply deficits. Health care workers have endured desperate shortages of PPE – forcing doctors and nurses to reuse masks, gowns, and gloves, which puts them at great risk for contracting and spreading the disease. Resulting exposure to infected people without PPE has compounded the stresses on the U.S. health system by compelling health workers to self-quarantine due to illness, further diminishing the ranks of health workers needed to treat COVID-19 patients.

More alarmingly, Bright linked the reprisals to his resistance to administration “efforts to promote and enable public access to unproven drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, without transparent information on the potential health risks.” Instead, multiple senior Trump administration officials, including the president, widely touted the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 and encouraged its use. President Trump continued to do so in defiance of warnings from the U.S. government’s  top medical voice on the pandemic and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, about the danger of such recommendations. The Food and Drug Administration on April 30 issued an official advisory based on multiple studies warning consumers that the drug was neither safe nor effective for treating COVID-19.

Retaliation against health workers, including scientists like Dr. Bright, for merely advocating policies or practices based on medical and public health best practices is unacceptable.One of the tragic lessons of the U.S. government’s pandemic response is that overcoming this crisis requires putting medical, public health, and scientific expertise at the forefront of our response. Health workers who speak out about failures in that regard deserve praise and protection, not punishment.

Unfortunately, there are disturbing indications that the Trump administration is continuing to ignore, override, and muzzle science-based guidance on mitigating transmission of the novel coronavirus. On May 13 evidence emerged that the administration’s April 17 blueprint for reopening the economy didn’t include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on the safest approach to doing so. The administration subsequently suppressed that CDC guidance and Republican lawmakers are blocking moves for its public release.

These revelations of deliberate government actions to undermine effective pandemic response are particularly poignant as the U.S. wrestles with a rapidly rising COVID-19 death toll now approaching 85,000. Bright’s allegations should prompt an urgent, bipartisan demand that the Trump administration prioritize science over politics in pandemic management. The necessity of such a response is underscored by President Trump’s attempt earlier today to malign Bright via Twitter as “a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!”

Time is short. And the consequences of continued politicization of the U.S. government pandemic response may be catastrophic in terms of more lives lost. The president needs to heed Dr. Bright’s warning that “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history.”

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