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The HHS official overseeing coronavirus vaccine development says he was ousted after his objections to hydroxychloroquine

Dr. Rick Bright says his demotion is an example of the White House putting “cronyism ahead of science.”

President Donald Trump walks in front of HHS Secretary Alex Azar on March 6, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In a scathing letter, the former director of the federal agency overseeing the development of a coronavirus vaccine claims he was removed from his post following clashes with Trump administration officials over their pushing of unproven and potentially dangerous coronavirus treatments.

“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,” writes Dr. Rick Bright in the letter, which was released through the law firm representing him.

Bright was alluding to efforts President Donald Trump and a number of his supporters in government and the media have made in recent weeks to promote hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus miracle drug.

“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 continued. “I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed Covid-19 while under the supervision of a physician.”

Bright led the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the agency leading the push for vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, until he was demoted Tuesday into a lesser role within the National Institutes of Health.

In the letter, first reported by the New York Times, Bright demanded the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General investigate whether his demotion to a lesser role with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stemmed from political or financial motives instead of public health ones. (Trump has a small investment in a company that manufactures Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine, and numerous wealthy Republican donors who are close with Trump have larger financial stakes in hydroxychloroquine drugs.)

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

Unnamed HHS sources quoted by Politico pushed back on Bright’s explosive account by characterizing his departure as “more than a year in the making” and following clashes between him and other officials.

Later Wednesday, another Politico report cited “three people with with knowledge of HHS’s recent acquisition” of hydroxychloroquine who claimed Bright actually praised the purchases in internal email exchanges.

In a statement sent to Vox, an HHS spokesperson echoed that report, claiming “it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for donations of chloroquine that Bayer and Sandoz recently made to the Strategic National Stockpile for use on COVID-19 patients. The EUA is what made the donated product available for use in combating COVID-19.”

Trump, for what it’s worth, claimed to have never heard of Bright during Wednesday’s press briefing.

Trump hyped hydroxychloroquine for weeks

Bright’s demotion came just ahead of publication of a study of coronavirus patients in Veterans Affairs hospitals that found more deaths among those treated with hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, than those treated with standard care. Researchers reported finding no benefit to its use, reinforcing previous warnings from doctors that hydroxychloroquine can result in drug-induced cardiac arrest for a small subset of the population.

The study of VA patients, which the NIH posted to its website on Tuesday and is the largest of its kind, was not peer-reviewed, and the authors concluded more rigorous studies are needed.

But while it isn’t the final word, the new study represented a major setback to Trumpworld’s efforts to portray hydroxychloroquine as a magic bullet that could end the coronavirus crisis. During press briefings earlier this month, Trump described hydroxychloroquine as a “game-changer” and said of doctors, “I hope they use it because I’ll tell you what, what do you have to lose?”

On April 7, Trump told Sean Hannity, “by the way, the hydroxychloroquine, we have millions of doses that I bought. I bought millions of doses. You know, for the country.” Indeed, HHS recently acquired millions of doses of the drug, and late last month the Food and Drug Administration authorized its emergency use for coronavirus.

Trump’s infatuation with hydroxychloroquine can be traced back to a controversial French study released in March on a small number of Covid-19 patients that found hydroxychloroquine could lessen the duration of infection. Media Matters for America has detailed how the French study and similar anecdotal evidence from China were covered by Fox News, amplified by Trump, with Trump’s amplification in turn being covered by Fox — a perfect illustration of the Fox-to-Trump feedback loop.

As it became clear that the United States was going to be especially hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Trump became insistent that the drug could be a savior — despite warnings from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci that clinical trials were needed and it was too soon to “make any definitive statement” about the efficaciousness of the drug.

On Tuesday, however, Trump’s tone suddenly changed. Asked about the results of the VA study during that evening’s White House press briefing, Trump dodged, saying, “I don’t know of the report,” and then tried to distance himself from the drug.

“We’ll be looking at it, we’ll have a comment on it at some point,” he said.

While those comments put Trump’s position on the unproven drug more in line with public health experts, Bright’s letter indicates there is still a great deal of discord happening behind the scenes.

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