A top federal vaccine expert who was ousted from his post this week felt pressured to rush out expanded access to a potential treatment for coronavirus patients after President Donald Trump discussed the drug with Larry Ellison, chairman of tech giant Oracle, NBC News reported Thursday.
The report comes a day after the expert, Rick Bright, went public with a bombshell statement saying he was removed from leading a federal agency heavily involved in coronavirus response efforts after he "resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections."
And it comes on the same day that a House committee chairman called for an investigation into Bright's forced transfer from his post as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a unit of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
A source close to Bright who spoke with NBC News said that he was told to put in place a national program geared to expanding access to the drug hydroxychloroquine after Ellison, who has raised campaign funds for Trump, and the president spoke about it.
The program would lack appropriate controls for drug treatment, including peer-reviewed clinical data about hydroxychloroquine's efficacy, according to NBC News.
On March 24, The Washington Post reported that Ellison helped arrange a partnership between Oracle and the federal government to collect "'data in real time from doctors trying out those and other unproven drugs" on Covid-19 patients outside of clinical trials. The Post reported that Oracle planned to donate to the government a related website to assist in that effort.
A spokeswoman for Ellison did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment from CNBC on the new NBC News report about Bright, and about the meeting between Trump and Ellison. The White House declined to comment, and HHS did not directly respond to a request for comment about a possible connection between Ellison's meeting and the pressure Bright felt.
The New York Times reported on April 6 that Trump "first expressed interest in hydroxychloroquine a few weeks ago, telling associates that Mr. Ellison, a billionaire and a founder of Oracle, had discussed it with him." Ellison is worth nearly $70 billion, according to a Forbes tally late last year.
Trump, during a news conference in early April, said five times, "What do you have to lose?" referring to coronavirus patients being given the drug, which normally is used to treat malaria.
After Bright was removed earlier this week from leading BARDA, he was given a job, with fewer responsibilities, at the National Institutes of Health.
Bright has since retained lawyers at a Washington, D.C., firm that specializes in representing whistleblowers. Those lawyers called his dismissal from BARDA "retaliation, plain and simple."
On Thursday, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked HHS's Office of the Inspector General, an internal ethics watchdog, to investigate the situation.
"I have been particularly concerned by the Trump Administration's politicization of public health agencies," the chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., wrote in a letter to the IG's office.
"This most recent action, if true, further raises serious questions about the commitment of President Trump and his Administration to science and the public good as the government and the nation work to combat an unprecedented global health pandemic," Pallone wrote.
In a statement Wednesday, Bright said he was ousted after resisting widespread adoption of hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has promoted as a treatment for Covid-19.
Bright also said that he believed he was removed from his post because he insisted that "the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic" be invested "into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit."
"Rushing blindly towards unproven drugs can be disastrous and result in countless more deaths. Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics," said Bright.
"I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way," he said.
An HHS spokeswoman on Wednesday night had said, "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 spokeswoman, Caitlin Oakley, added, "The EUA is what made the donated product available for use in combating COVID-19."
Oakley later Thursday night pointed CNBC to a statement that HHS issued Tuesday when news broke that Bright had left BARDA.
HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his lawyers' statement Thursday. An HHS spokeswoman, Caitlin Oakley, later sent CNBC an email containing the department's prior statements from Tuesday and Wednesday explaining Bright's exit from BARDA.
The statement noted that last week, NIH announced a new public-private partnership "to accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccine and treatment options."
"Given the simultaneous importance of accelerating the development of diagnostic tests for COVID-19, Dr. Rick Bright will transfer the skills he has applied as Director of [BARDA to NIH] as part of a bold plan to accelerate the development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms," HHS said Tuesday.
Trump, during a news conference Wednesday night, said, "I never heard of him" when asked about Bright's allegations.
Bright's lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, said Wednesday that, "The results from the Administration's refusal to listen to the experts and to sideline those like Dr. Bright who point out any errors in the government's response will continue to be catastrophic for the American people."
"We will request that the Office of Special Counsel seek a stay of Dr. Bright's termination and that Dr. Bright be permitted to remain in his position pending the OSC and [HHS inspector general's] investigation of this unlawful forced transfer."
As of Thursday, there were more than 842,600 cases of coronavirus in the United States, with at least 46,785 deaths related to Covid-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
An analysis released Tuesday found that there was no benefit to using hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus.
In fact, the analysis found there were more deaths among Covid-19 patients in American veterans hospitals who received hydroxychloroquine compared with those who were given standard care.
On March 21, Trump had tweeted that "HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine." Azithromycin is an antibiotic.
On Tuesday, a panel of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommended that doctors not use a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin in treating Covid-19 "because of the potential for toxicities."
The panel said the drugs should only be used in combination in clinical trials.