Federal investigators say they have reasonable grounds to believe Rick Bright was ousted as director of a US government research agency in retaliation for clashing with the Trump administration over its handling of the coronavirus.
The Office of Special Counsel, which handles government whistleblower complaints, has made an initial finding that Dr Bright was unfairly removed as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda), his lawyers said. They added that the OSC has now urged the health department to reinstate him while it investigates further.
Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, Dr Bright’s lawyers, said in a statement on Friday: “This country is in an unprecedented health crisis and needs the expertise of Dr Bright to lead the nation’s efforts to combat Covid-19. We hope the [health] secretary will grant the Special Counsel’s request and allow Dr Bright, one of nation’s leading vaccine scientists, to return to his position leading Barda and serving his country.”
The health department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The OSC said it would not comment on an open investigation.
Dr Bright said he was removed from his role as Barda director and given a lesser job at the National Institutes of Health after speaking out against the Trump administration’s repeated attempts to promote the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. President Donald Trump has repeatedly spoken in positive terms about the potential for hydroxychloroquine to be used against the virus, despite a lack of evidence that it works as such.
Earlier this week Dr Bright filed an 89-page complaint in which he detailed what he alleged was a pattern of cronyism among senior figures in the administration, putting lives at risk as coronavirus has swept through the US.
He alleged that Alex Azar, the health secretary, and Robert Kadlec, an assistant secretary at the department, downplayed the threat of the disease in the early days of the pandemic. And he accused the White House of pushing to make hydroxychloroquine available outside hospitals, which Dr Bright feared would cause “serious patient harm and potentially many patient deaths”.
The OSC does not have the power to force the health department to reinstate Dr Bright, but must now wait for a determination from Mr Azar as to whether to do so and allow a full investigation to go ahead.