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Bright was fired from BARDA for resisting demands to disregard science on COVID-19

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Rick Bright was fired as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response because he refused to fund projects that had strong political backing but lacked scientific merit, according to a statement he released and former colleagues who spoke with BioCentury.

The firing is a symptom of long-simmering feuds and jockeying for position in the Trump administration.

In the statement, first reported by the New York Times, Bright wrote that he’d been removed from his positions “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.”

Bright said he had clashed with HHS political leadership over his resistance to “efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.”

Individuals who have worked with Bright said his detractors include HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Robert Kadlec, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

Bright stated that he had “limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the Administration as a panacea, but which lack scientific merit.”

Sources who have worked with Bright said the dispute goes well beyond the two malaria drugs and involves his refusal to fund a wide range of products that are being promoted by individuals with close ties to Azar and President Donald Trump.

Bright has resisted attempts to rush unproved drugs to COVID-19 patients, and has supported the rigorous collection of scientific data to support funding and drug development decisions, according to his supporters inside and outside the administration.

Bright wrote in his statement that firing the head of BARDA at a critical time will disrupt the fight against the pandemic. “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.”

Current and former administration officials told BioCentury that the move to oust Bright was part of Azar's bid to regain his standing with Trump and to win turf battles involving the allocation of billions of dollars in funds for COVID-19 R&D.

Trump dropped Azar as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and has refused for weeks to speak one-on-one with the HHS head, administration officials said.

In addition to firing Bright, Azar has shifted his media strategy in an apparent attempt to regain Trump’s trust. In tweets, Azar has echoed Trump, calling mainstream news media “fake news.”

Azar has also granted interviews to far-right news outlets such as Breitbart News that are usually out of bounds for public health officials, and has spoken on radio programs hosted by conservatives who promote conspiracy theories, including those involving HHS officials such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The shift in media profile follows the appointment of Michael Caputo this month as HHS assistant secretary of public affairs. Caputo has publicly celebrated his friendships with Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, Trump administration officials who are serving jail sentences for crimes committed in connection with the 2016 election campaign.

Further analysis of the coronavirus crisis can be found at https://www.biocentury.com/coronavirus.

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