Did Team Trump oust a top US vaccine official during a pandemic?

The doctor who was helping lead the search for a vaccine to the coronavirus is no longer at his post. He alleges White House politics is to blame.
Image: A researcher works on a vaccine against the new coronavirus Covid-19 at the Copenhagen's University research lab in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 23, 2020.
A researcher works on a vaccine against the new coronavirus Covid-19 at the Copenhagen's University research lab in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 23, 2020.Thibault Savary / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump seemed to make up his mind weeks ago: hydroxychloroquine, the president decided, would be the miracle drug the world was waiting for. The science to support the conclusion didn't exist, but Trump said he had "a feeling" he was right.

And so, the White House and its allies proceeded accordingly. On camera, the president personally encouraged Americans to take the medication, while behind the scenes, public-officials were warned not to contradict Trump.

How far did this go? By one new account, so far that the doctor who was helping lead the search for a vaccine to save us from the deadly coronavirus is no longer at his post.

A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services says he was ousted from his job this week for pushing back on demands that he sign off on a coronavirus treatment the president had advocated.

The fact that Dr. Rick Bright has been transferred from his HHS position is not in dispute. The question is why and what prompted the change.

In a statement issued by his lawyers, first reported by the New York Times, Bright gave his side of the story. "I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit," the doctor wrote. "I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science -- not politics or cronyism -- has to lead the way."

Bright added, "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. 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."

Naturally, this put Bright at odds with Team Trump and its political allies. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a related statement, acknowledging Bright's departure from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

Politico, meanwhile, reported that the doctor clashed with department officials and only recently became a hydroxychloroquine skeptic.

Regardless, to put it mildly, the timing of this is less than ideal. The search for a vaccine is currently the single most important task anyone on the planet could be engaged in. It's not easy for a career scientist to rise to the level of overseeing vaccine research at BARDA, so Bright's departure appears to be a significant loss -- for everyone.

And if politics was responsible for his ouster, as the doctor alleges, it makes these developments all the more dejecting.

For his part, Donald Trump told reporters yesterday that he's "never heard of" Bright. The president added, "The guy says he was pushed out of a job. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't."

As for Bright's assertion in his written statement that he "rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public," the latest research suggests the drug touted by the president and Fox News is not safe or effective in treating COVID-19.