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Doctor says he was removed from federal post after questioning hydroxychloroquine treatment

  • CDC VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China.

    CDC VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

    This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China.

A doctor says he was removed from his federal post after pressing for rigorous vetting of treatments embraced by President Donald Trump.

The doctor, who led the federal agency involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine, said today that he was removed from his post after he pressed for a rigorous vetting of a coronavirus treatment embraced by Trump. The doctor said that science, not “politics and cronyism,” must lead the way.

Dr. Rick Bright was abruptly dismissed this week as director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, and as deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

Instead, he was given a narrower job at the National Institutes of Health. “I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” he said in a statement to The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman.

“I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way,” he said.

The White House declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The medical publication Stat reported Tuesday that Bright had clashed with Bob Kadlec, assistant health secretary for preparedness and response.

Bright, who noted that his entire career had been spent in vaccine development both in and outside of government, has led BARDA since 2016.

In the statement, he said, “My professional background has prepared me for a moment like this — to confront and defeat a deadly virus that threatens Americans and people around the globe. To this point, I have led the government’s efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with HHS political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early into vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives. I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections,” he said.

Bright, who is a career official and not a political appointee, pointed specifically to the initial efforts to make chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine widely available before it was scientifically tested for efficacy with the coronavirus.

“Specifically, and 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,” he said.

“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,” Bright said, describing what ultimately happened: “I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician.

“These drugs have potentially serious risks associated with them, including increased mortality observed in some recent studies in patients with COVID-19.

“Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safely and effectively address this urgent public health crisis,” Bright said.

“I will request that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services investigate the manner in which this administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections and efforts that lack scientific merit,” he said. “Rushing blindly towards unproven drugs can be disastrous and result in countless more deaths. Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics.”

Bright has hired lawyers Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, who have a whistleblower practice and are known in part for representing Christine Blasey Ford, who, during the nomination process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, accused him of engaging in sexual misconduct decades earlier, a claim he denied.

In a statement, the lawyers called Bright’s change in position “retaliation, plain and simple,” and said that they planned to ask the Office of Special Counsel to seek a stay of his termination from the position and that he eventually be restored to it after investigations.

On Tuesday a panel of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the federal agency led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, issued guidelines stating that experts had collected insufficient data to recommend either for or against the use of any antiviral drug or medication that affects the immune system in patients with COVID-19.

The panel did specifically advise against several treatments unless they were given in clinical trials. One was the combination of hydroxychloroquine plus the antibiotic azithromycin, which Trump has repeatedly promoted despite the lack of evidence that they work. Those drugs should be used only in clinical trials “because of the potential for toxicities,” the experts said.

The panel also had cautionary advice about hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, even when given without azithromycin, saying that patients receiving them should be monitored for adverse effects, particularly an abnormality in heart rhythm.

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