A Top Government Scientist Sends A Sharp Warning About ‘Politicized’ COVID-19 Work

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April 23, 2020 5:17 p.m.
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This piece is part of our weekly Prime series on corruption and the Trump Swamp, but it has been moved outside of the paywall while we cover COVID-19.

A top government scientist sent a warning to the public this week that the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response had been politicized and corrupted by well-connected business interests.

The statement from Dr. Rick Bright was stunning in its frankness.

The administration had put “politics and cronyism ahead of science,” he said. Rather than invest in “safe and scientifically vetted solutions,” it had pursued “drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.”

Bright, who had just been demoted from his post as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) when he made his statement to The New York Times, paid particular attention to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, anti-malaria drugs now largely used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

“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,” Bright said.

The President has consistently hyped the pills as potential wonder drugs against COVID-19, but the clinical data so far is mixed at best and simply doesn’t support their widespread use against the disease.

Nonetheless, Trump has insisted. Pressed Tuesday on a study that did not find the anti-malarial drug effective against COVID-19, Trump offered more generic praise and then dodged.

“Obviously there have been some very good reports and perhaps this one’s not a good report,” he said. “But we’ll be looking at it.”

Why the boosterism?

It could be pressure from Joseph Pizza, a Trump donor and sales representative for companies that produce pharmaceutical agents including hydroxychloroquine sulfate.

The Job Creators Network, a dark money group funded in part by the pharmaceutical industry trade group PhRMA, has also pushed the drugs.

Alternatively, as The New York Times reported earlier this month, Trump first expressed interest in hydroxychloroquine in March, “telling associates that Mr. [Larry] Ellison, a billionaire and a founder of Oracle, had discussed it with him.”

After that discussion, an unnamed source close to Dr. Bright told NBC News Thursday, Bright was instructed “to implement a national program aimed at expanding access to the drug without proper controls in place and despite the lack of peer-reviewed clinical data on the drug’s effectiveness.”

That broadly describes the emergency authorization the FDA gave BARDA late last month in order to allow millions of pills donated to the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile to be distributed to hospitals for use with COVID-19 patients.

While doctors can individually prescribe the anti-malaria medication for “off-label” COVID-19 use, the U.S. government can’t distribute drugs for off-label use. The emergency authorization, addressed to Bright by name, allowed millions of pills to flow to hospitals.

In his statement to the Times, Bright said he will request an internal investigation into “the manner in which this administration has politicized the work of BARDA and has pressured me and other conscientious scientists to fund companies with political connections as well as efforts that lack scientific merit.”

There’s reason to be wary of Bright’s story. Politico reported Wednesday that Bright’s transfer to a different position at the National Institutes of Health was a year in the making. And unnamed officials at HHS, which houses BARDA, told the outlet that Bright was more receptive to hydroxychloroquine than his statement reflects.

A spokesperson for the law firm representing the doctor did not respond to TPM’s request for comment Thursday.

Until more is known about the basis for Bright’s claims, the administration is on familiar footing: A civil servant has pulled the fire alarm, and the government’s well of public trust is near dry.

As Derek Lowe, the chemist and columnist, wrote of Bright’s statement Wednesday, “unfortunately, the conduct of many members of this administration does not allow anyone to dismiss these allegations out of hand.”

Here’s what else we were watching this week:

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

TPM’s COVID-19 hub.
Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.
COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).
Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).
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