Whistle-Blowing Scientist Quits Government With Final Broadside

WASHINGTON — Rick Bright, a senior vaccine scientist who said he was demoted this spring for complaining about “cronyism” and political interference in science, resigned his final government post on Tuesday, saying he had been sidelined and left with nothing to do.

In a new addendum to the whistle-blower complaint he filed in May, Dr. Bright’s lawyers say officials at the National Institutes of Health, where he worked after his demotion, rejected his idea for a national coronavirus testing strategy “because of political considerations.” He also accused them of ignoring his request to join the $10 billion effort to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed.

“I long to serve the American people by using my skills to fight this pandemic,” Dr. Bright wrote on Sept. 25 to Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the institutes, noting that he had 25 years of experience in vaccine development. “The taxpayers who pay my salary deserve no less.”

Dr. Bright’s resignation from the Department of Health and Human Services comes six months after he was ousted as the chief of the department’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and reassigned to a narrower job at the health institutes, which also fall under the health department. At the N.I.H, he was supposed to take the lead on developing novel point-of-care coronavirus tests. His lawyers said he did that, creating a team that awarded eight contracts to build up coronavirus testing and exhausted its budget.

But, one of his lawyers said on Tuesday, Dr. Bright “remains very concerned” about the politicization of science from the White House, especially with the arrival from Stanford’s Hoover Institution of Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a neuroradiologist without training in epidemiology or infectious diseases. Dr. Atlas’s aversion to mask wearing and his belief that “herd immunity” could stop Covid-19 have made him a favorite of President Trump’s.

During his weekly meetings with Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, it has become clear that President Trump’s new science adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, “who lacks a background in infectious disease, is ‘calling the shots’ at the White House,” Dr. Bright’s lawyers wrote.

Dr. Collins did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have previously said that they strongly disagree with Dr. Bright’s characterizations, and Mr. Trump has called Dr. Bright a “disgruntled employee” on Twitter. An N.I.H. official said on Tuesday that the agency could “confirm that Dr. Bright has resigned, effective today,” adding that it “does not discuss personnel issues beyond confirming employment.”

Dr. Bright has been given “no meaningful work” since Sept. 4, the lawyers wrote.

“Dr. Bright was forced to leave his position at N.I.H. because he can no longer sit idly by and work for an administration that ignores scientific expertise, overrules public health guidance and disrespects career scientists, resulting in the sickness and death of hundreds of thousands of Americans,” the lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, said in a statement.

In his initial complaint filed in May, Dr. Bright detailed what he called “cronyism” in the federal health apparatus, including White House pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to grant an emergency approval for hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug championed by Mr. Trump as a treatment for Covid-19. (The F.D.A. later revoked the emergency authorization, saying studies showed the drug’s risks outweighed its benefits.)

The complaint detailed clashes between Dr. Bright and higher-ups at the health department, and included email messages showing that, as early as January, when the president was saying the outbreak was “totally under control,” Dr. Bright was pressing for the government to stock up on masks and drugs. His entreaties were ignored.

“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” he told a House subcommittee in May.

The special counsel’s office said at the time that it had found “reasonable grounds to believe” the Trump administration was retaliating against Dr. Bright, and recommended that Mr. Trump’s health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, reinstate Dr. Bright while it investigated. But the office has no authority to enforce its recommendation, and Dr. Bright did not get back his job.

While at the N.I.H., the addendum says, Dr. Bright “successfully launched a program to expand Covid-19 diagnostic testing,” and then joined with a colleague on a paper recommending development of “a robust national testing infrastructure,” including a plan to greatly expand testing of asymptomatic people. A draft of the paper was sent to Dr. Collins on Sept. 4.

But while Dr. Collins praised Dr. Bright for developing a “thoughtful” plan that “includes a lot of good points,” he declined to support it because he feared that the Trump administration would not back it and that it would “step on the toes” of other teams within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Bright, the lawyers wrote, was “disturbed that Dr. Collins appeared willing to bow to political pressure.”

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