A government watchdog has found a "substantial likelihood of wrongdoing" in the removal of a vaccine specialist from leading a federal agency handling coronavirus response, his lawyers disclosed Thursday.
The preliminary finding from the Office of the Special Counsel, which is investigating Rick Bright's whistleblower complaint, was disclosed just before Bright began testifying before a House panel.
"I believe we could have done better," Bright said when asked by the House Subcommittee on Health Chairwoman Anna Eshoo if the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a failure.
"I believe there were was critical steps that we did not take," said Bright.
Bright says he was removed last month as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after resisting efforts to increase access to hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug promoted by President Donald Trump as a possible treatment for Covid-19.
Bright, who says there are safety concerns with the drug, was then transferred to a job with less responsibility at the National Institutes of Health, another division of the Health and Human Services Department. He recently filed a complaint with the Office of the Special Counsel challenging his removal.
Bright warned during his testimony Thursday that Covid-19 could exceed in severity the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people.
This year, he said, could see the "darkest winter in modern history" if American leaders do not launch a more coordinated response to contain the pandemic.
Before Bright began his testimony, Eshoo, D-Calif., noted that HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro had refused invitations to appear at the hearing.
Bright's whistleblower complaint says that Navarro "clearly shared Dr. Bright's concerns about the potential devastation the United States would face from the coronavirus and asked Dr. Bright to identify the supply chain and medical countermeasures most critical to address" in February.
Bright told lawmakers Thursday he and other federal health officials had "worked hard" to resist pressure to allow a significant increase in access to hydroxychloroquine, and instead scaled that back to allowing an emergency use authorization but only "with strict guidelines."
But he said his "concerns were escalated when I learned that officials were pushing to make that drug available outside that emergency authorization."
"When I spoke outside of the government and shared my concern with the American public, that I believe was the straw that broke the camels back and escalated my removal," Bright said.
He later said, "The highest priority we have is safety."
Bright noted that there are known side effects of the drug, including irregular heartbeat, and warned against relying on anecdotal evidence from limited use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in Covid-19 patients.
"We didn't have any evidence of how these safety concerns would appear with people with this virus," Bright said in explaining his resistance to embracing widespread use of those drugs.
"There was not sufficient data at that time to support the use of this drug in patients with Covid-19 without close supervision," he said.
But several Republican committee members suggested that using those drugs for Covid-19 patients might be warranted, even if there is not conclusive evidence now as to their efficacy.
Hydroxychloroquine did not appear to help hospitalized patients with Covid-19, according to an observational study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Last month, researchers cut short a study testing chloroquine after some Covid-19 patients developed irregular heart beats and almost two dozen of them died after taking daily doses of the drug. Another study, conducted among patients at Veterans Affairs hospitals, found there were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care, researchers reported.
In his whistleblower complaint, Bright alleged that HHS employees and its Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response "engaged in conduct that may constitute violations of law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; a gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety; and censorship related to scientific research," the Office of Special Counsel said in a letter to Bright released by his lawyers on Thursday.
"We emphasize that, while OSC has found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information you submitted in support of your allegations your referral to the Secretary for investigation is not a final determination that the allegations are substantiated," the letter said.
The watchdog agency said that the claims remain under investigation until its final report is given to the president and Congress.
Bright's lawyers said last week that the OSC had told them the investigation already had found evidence that Bright was ousted as head of a health agency for pushing back against increasing use of hydroxychloroquine.
And the lawyers said the OSC planned to ask the Department of Health and Human Services to stay his removal from leading Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority pending the outcome of the investigation.
HHS, in an emailed statement, said, "Rick Bright was transferred from his role as BARDA director to lead a bold new $1 billion testing program at NIH, critical to saving lives and reopening America."
"Mr. Bright has not yet shown up for work, but continues to collect his $285,010 salary, while using his taxpayer-funded medical leave to work with partisan attorneys who are politicizing the response to COVID-19," the statement said.
"His whistleblower complaint is filled with one-sided arguments and misinformation. HHS is reviewing the complaint and strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations made by Rick Bright."
HHS also said that it was under Bright's leadership that BARDA identified chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as potential Covid-19 treatments.
"Rick Bright was the sponsor of getting hydroxychloroquine and praised his team for acquiring the drugs," HHS said.
Trump slammed Bright on Twitter on Thursday morning before testimony began.
"I don't know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, never met him or even heard of him," Trump tweeted.
"But to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!" Trump wrote.
But Eshoo said the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak has been "disastrous."
"Dr. Bright has filed one of the most specific and troubling whistleblower complaints I've ever seen," the congresswoman said. "He was the right person with the right judgment at the right time. He was not only ignored, he was fired for being right."
She added: "We can't have a system where the government fires those who get it right and reward those who get it completely wrong."
In a clear shot at Trump and his administration, Eshoo added, "I'm tired of those who bear the greatest responsibility accepting none of it, while deflecting blame on others — the previous administration, the World Health Organization, the Wuhan Lab — anywhere but where the blame belongs."