2020 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate – Dr. Rick Bright
Scientists within federal agencies don’t normally have to put their jobs and reputation on the line in order to do what until recently we took for granted: that the federal government would take action consistent with the best scientific methods and evidence when the country is faced with a grave and immediate public health threat. But the last four years during the Trump administration have been anything but normal, with the failure of political leadership coming to a dismal head last January with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, thrusting normally camera-shy civil servants into the limelight.
One federal scientist, in particular, had the courage to step forward and sound the alarm that the federal government was not doing nearly enough to protect the public from harm: Dr. Rick Bright. Last January, when the threat posed by Covid-19 was first recognized, Dr. Bright was the director of a federal agency, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), responsible for developing medical countermeasures with the help of private industry to combat biological and chemical attacks, as well as pandemic threats. As an influenza expert himself, Dr. Bright was uniquely positioned to shape the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But he was horrified by what he saw transpiring within the upper echelons of HHS and the Trump administration.
Instead of quickly marshalling the best scientific evidence to develop a national testing strategy and ramping up production of essential supplies like masks and testing materials, he observed President Trump and members of his administration expending resources on the unproven use of an antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, to treat COVID-19. And he observed a failure to promote the use of masks and testing to control the spread of the virus. In May, Dr. Bright testified to Congress: “From that moment, I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball. That was our last window of opportunity to turn on that production to save the lives of those health care workers, and we didn’t act.”
Perhaps even more disturbing, Dr. Bright witnessed rampant “cronyism” and corruption at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as he pressed for a more robust COVID-19 response and opposed the stockpiling of hydroxychloroquine. He alleges that his boss at HHS repeatedly pressured him to steer millions of dollars’ worth of contracts for PPE to the clients of a well-connected consultant, and experienced opposition when he pushed as early as last January for the necessary resources to develop countermeasures to the pandemic. He testified that his requests for resources in January were met with “surprise and puzzlement” within the Trump administration.
Dr. Bright could have simply deferred to the political appointees at HHS and sat quietly on the margins, thereby protecting his job at BARDA until the tumult blew over. But he did not. He spoke up. And he complained. Initially, following proper protocol, he complained within HHS. Not receiving an appropriate response, he complained to the Office of Special Counsel. Still not receiving an appropriate response, he complained to Congress and to the press. He complained about the lack of an urgent and unified response to the pandemic. He complained about the diversion of precious resources for unproven treatments. And he complained about the politicization of science within the Trump administration.
In April, because of his complaints, Dr. Bright was removed as the director of BARDA. He filed a whistleblower complaint in response, which is still pending. After being transferred to a lower-level position at the National Institutes of Health, he soldiered on, leading a team of scientists to develop point-of-care coronavirus tests. But in October, with the arrival of Dr. Scott Atlas as President Trump’s science advisor, a neuroradiologist with no training in infectious disease and a proponent of “herd immunity,” Dr. Bright felt compelled to resign his government post. His lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, explained that Dr. Bright “could no longer sit idly by and work for an administration that ignores scientific expertise, overrules public health guidance and disrespects career scientists, resulting in the sickness and death of hundreds of thousands of Americans.”
Sadly, Dr. Bright’s prediction last May that “2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history” if federal officials fail to act swiftly to quell the pandemic, may yet come to pass. For both his prescience and bravery in sounding the alarm about the failure of the Trump administration to take appropriate actions to respond to the pandemic, and for his scientific integrity, we nominate Dr. Rick Bright for Constantine Cannon’s 2020 Whistleblower of the Year.
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