WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new whistleblower complaint has drawn attention for its allegations that the Trump administration retaliated against a scientist who sent early coronavirus warnings. The case also provides an insider account of the dysfunction critics say paralyzed the Department of Health and Human Services at the dawn of the COVID-19 response.
The complaint by Dr. Rick Bright, who headed a federal agency called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, until April 20, says HHS Secretary Alex Azar and his top aides dismissed experts’ warnings about the impending epidemic, failed to implement vital procedures and got sidetracked with political backbiting.
Bright’s complaint, filed Tuesday, was the subject of media reports for its description of the administration’s scramble to make malaria drugs available at President Trump’s behest. However, the complaint also offers fresh details that haven’t been highlighted. They show how tensions between public health agencies likely delayed a more aggressive early government response.
When Bright pushed top management in late January to move aggressively, the complaint said, HHS leaders “responded with surprise at Dr. Bright’s dire predictions and urgency, and asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out of the United States.”
As Reuters reported last month, Azar in January tapped a 37-year-old political appointee with minimal public health or administrative experience to coordinate the agency’s day-to-day response to COVID-19. For six years before joining the Trump Administration, the aide, Brian Harrison, had been a professional labradoodle breeder.
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The whistleblower complaint asserts Harrison and Deputy Chief of Staff Judy Stecker blocked Bright, the government’s top vaccine expert, from key HHS meetings in January. “The decision to eliminate BARDA was made by Brian Harrison, Secretary Azar’s Chief of Staff, and Ms. Stecker,” the complaint said.
BARDA and Stecker referred calls to HHS, which declined comment. Bright, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. The HHS declined to arrange interviews with Azar and Harrison.
In an email to a colleague in January, Bright wondered why his group was left out but noted that other health agencies were involved, so his was an “obvious group to cut if shrinking the table. But we have a significant role.”
In his whistleblower complaint, he said it became clear to him why he was pushed aside. “It was obvious that Dr. Bright’s persistent demands for urgent action to respond to the pandemic had caused a ‘shit storm’ and a ‘commotion’ and were unwelcome in the office of the HHS Secretary,” he wrote. “As a result, HHS leadership excluded Dr. Bright and BARDA from these recurring meetings and from the critical discussions about addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As Reuters earlier reported, three government sources said Harrison had also blocked the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Stephen Hahn, from a White House task force set up in January to address the public health crisis.
Three sources say Harrison, who held previous government posts before owning the dog breeding business, kept a “white noise” machine outside his office door to prevent others from hearing his conversations. The agency earlier told Reuters the device was installed by the HHS Office of National Security. HHS also said Harrison was not the person who initially excluded the FDA commissioner, without saying who did.
Azar earlier told Reuters Harrison has a “deep appreciation for HHS’s complex work.” Others say a chief of staff does not necessarily need healthcare expertise. “There are two important things about chiefs of staff,” said former HHS official William Pierce. “One, you trust them and, two, they make the trains run on time.”
In his complaint, Bright also asserts the federal government didn’t initiate a key disaster procedure until the fourth week of January. The Disaster Leadership Group brought together management of key agencies. When he suggested implementing the group earlier, on January 18, Bright said his supervisor, Robert Kadlec, first said it wasn’t necessary and then that there wasn’t “urgency.” Kadlec referred questions to the HHS, which declined comment.
The complaint also recounts a frustrating attempt to get samples of the actual virus from China, which Bright says “were critical to begin development of vaccines, diagnostics, and medicines.” He said he pushed HHS officials on January 10, 21 and 23 “to obtain sequencing and virus samples from China, to no avail.” On January 27, as Azar was scheduled to talk with China’s health minister, Bright unsuccessfully pressed again.
The complaint said his team “feverishly emailed health officials and laboratories in Australia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and France to try to obtain samples because the CDC had refused to provide information or virus samples to them.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention referred questions to HHS, which had no comment.
Bright, whose lawyers filed the complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, is expected to testify about his allegations next week to Congress.
Reporting by Aram Roston and Marisa Taylor in Washington. Editing by Ronnie Greene.