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U.S. settles scientist's whistleblower complaint about Trump COVID-19 response

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Rick Bright is seen in his official government handout portrait photo from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services taken in Washington, U.S. in 2017. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Handout via REUTERS

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Aug 9 (Reuters) - The U.S. government has agreed to compensate a scientist who filed a whistleblower complaint that said former President Donald Trump's administration botched its early response to the coronavirus pandemic, the scientist's lawyer said on Monday.

Dr. Rick Bright, formerly of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reached a settlement with the agency, lawyer Debra Katz said.

The settlement resolves Bright's "allegations that HHS retaliated against him for blowing the whistle about the Trump Administration’s inadequate and irresponsible response to the coronavirus pandemic," Katz said in a statement.

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Neither side disclosed specifics of the settlement, but Katz said "Dr. Bright has been compensated to the fullest extent allowed by the law" and "will receive back pay and compensatory damages."

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency that hears whistleblower complaints, said in a statement that it helped facilitate a "mutually agreeable resolution."

HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bright was removed in April 2020 as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a part of HHS responsible for developing drugs to fight the coronavirus.

Bright said he was removed and demoted because he raised concerns about pandemic preparedness.

HHS has disputed Bright’s account, saying last year he was transferred to a job where he was entrusted to spend around $1 billion to develop diagnostic testing.

Bright testified at a congressional hearing in May 2020 that he would "never forget" an e-mail he got in January 2020 from a U.S. supplier of medical-grade masks warning of a dire shortage.

"He said ‘we are in deep shit. The world is. We need to act,’" Bright told lawmakers. "And I pushed that forward to the highest level that I could of HHS and got no response."

Bright said he was ousted from BARDA in part because he resisted efforts to push the drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, something advocated by Trump himself.

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Reporting by Jan Wolfe in Boston; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool

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