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Ousted virus expert Rick Bright warns of "darkest winter in modern history"

Ousted scientist speaks to "60 Minutes"

Washington — Dr. Rick Bright, a top government virologist who filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was removed from his role for political reasons, told lawmakers on Thursday that "time is running out" to develop a nationwide strategy for combating the coronavirus pandemic and distributing an eventual vaccine.

"Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities," Bright told a House subcommittee Thursday morning. "Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history." 

Bright, who remains a federal employee, testified Thursday before the Subcommittee on Health for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the pandemic and the whistleblower complaint he filed about being removed from his job as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Bright claims that he was ousted from his position after raising concerns about a coronavirus treatment supported by President Trump.

In his prepared testimony, Bright said he believes his transfer came about as a result of his insistence that money allocated by Congress to confront COVID-19 should be put "into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit."

"I spoke out then and I am testifying today because science — not politics or cronyism — must lead the way to combat this deadly virus," Bright said.

He also advocated "clear leadership, honest communication, and data-driven solutions" as the pandemic continues, and suggested increasing public education on health measures such as hand-washing and social distancing, as well as ramping up production of essential equipment and implementing a national testing system.

Whistleblower says Trump administration ignored warnings about coronavirus

Bright's whistleblower complaint, filed earlier this month, said he was removed as director of BARDA soon after the publication of an article about chloroquine for which Bright admits he was a source. 

Government officials, he said in his complaint, "refused to listen," so Bright opted to talk to a journalist. He said he believed that he had a moral obligation to do what he could to protect the public "from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a lengthy statement attempting to rebut Bright's testimony in the form of a fact check. 

The federal Office of Special Counsel last week determined his removal was retaliatory and said that Bright should be reinstated as director of BARDA while the matter is investigated. 

Mr. Trump has referred to hydroxychloroquine as a potential "game-changer" in treating COVID-19 and has recommended the use of the antimalarial drug as a potential treatment, despite limited evidence of the drug's efficacy.

In mid-April, the Trump administration granted chloroquine an Emergency Use Authorization, an FDA authority that allows unapproved medical products to be used in medical emergencies. The FDA on April 24 cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine "outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial."

Bright claims his persistent warnings caused tension with his bosses at the Department of Health and Human Services. He says it reached a breaking point when he raised concerns over the administration's embrace of hydroxychloroquine, what Bright called a drug unproven to treat COVID-19 patients.

"You believe you were retaliated against because you raised concerns about hydroxychloroquine?" CBS News' Norah O'Donnell asked Bright in a "60 Minutes" interview that will air May 17.

"Yes. I do," Bright replied.

Mr. Trump has said he doesn't know Bright, but he "seems like a disgruntled employee who's trying to help the Democrats win an election."

"I am not disgruntled," Bright told "60 Minutes." "I am frustrated at a lack of leadership. I am frustrated at a lack of urgency to get a head start on developing life-saving tools for Americans. I'm frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists."

And he says he was surprised to learn he'd been reassigned to the NIH to develop diagnostic testing.

"I'm the director of BARDA," Bright told O'Donnell. "To take me out of our organization focused on drugs and vaccines and diagnostics in the middle of a pandemic, of the worst public health crisis that our country's faced in a century, and decapitate the BARDA organization. To move me over to a very small focused project of any scale, of any level importance is not responsible. Didn't make sense."

A spokesperson for HHS has said this is a personnel matter under review, but department officials "strongly disagree with the allegations and characterizations" in Bright's whistleblower complaint.

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