BARDA whistleblower Rick Bright speaks out on 60 Minutes

Former director of HHS's BARDA, Rick Bright, tells Norah O'Donnell his removal is a "significant setback" in the nation's effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

BARDA's role during coronavirus pandemic

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Norah O'Donnell interviews Dr. Rick Bright, the former director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for his first television interview since being removed from his post.

A virologist, Bright served as the director of BARDA from November 2016 until April 2020, when he was reassigned to a new position at the National Institutes of Health

In an 89-page whistleblower complaint, Bright claimed his reassignment was retaliatory. 

Bright says that in January he warned his superiors about a national shortage of supplies needed to combat the imminent COVID-19 pandemic. 

"BARDA has laid out a road-map and a strategy in how we need to get through this pandemic and work with industry to make the drugs and vaccines and diagnostics available," Bright tells 60 Minutes. "Taking me out as the leader of BARDA in the middle of this pandemic has really set our country back in our ability to make those vaccines and drugs available as quickly as possible."

Bright told 60 Minutes that he believes his relentless warnings created a tense environment with his superiors and reached a climax when President Donald Trump and his administration touted the use of the drug Hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients. Bright called the drug unproven in this context.  

In his whistleblower complaint, Bright acknowledges he provided a reporter with HHS emails that he says discussed the potential toxicity of and political pressure to acquire hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine abroad. Bright's complaint says the emails were "not privileged or classified or otherwise legally restricted from dissemination."

President Trump described Bright as a disgruntled employee with political motives

Bright told 60 Minutes he is not disgruntled. 

"What I'm trying to do is save lives," Bright told O'Donnell. "I'm trying to protect Americans from the worst public health crises and the worst economic downturn that we have seen and will likely ever see in our lifetime. My focus is there. It's not about me. It's not about my politics or my position. Right now, it's about saving lives and that's what I'm focused on.

BARDA was created in 2006, as part of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act. The law that passed both houses of Congress unanimously before President George W. Bush signed it into law.

The government entity falls under the auspice of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and is overseen by the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Dr. Robert Kadlec, whom Bright claims retaliated against him. 

According to its government website, BARDA's mission is to:

"Develop and procure medical countermeasures that address the public health and medical consequences of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) accidents, incidents and attacks, pandemic influenza, and emerging infectious diseases."

BARDA works with the private sector, providing expertise and sometimes funding, in the development of drugs and vaccines, and is working on the response to the COVID-19 emergency. The agency has received over $3.5 billion in Congressional funding in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is responsible for reviewing whistleblower complaints. Bright's attorneys provided 60 Minutes with a letter from OSC that says based on the information contained in Bright's complaint there is a "substantial likelihood of wrongdoing." The OSC letter further says it has requested the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, conduct an investigation into the matter. 

When contacted about Bright's complaint, a spokesperson for HHS said, "This is a personnel matter that is currently under review. However, HHS strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright."

According to the OSC letter, Bright's complaint is "an open matter under investigation until the agency's [HHS] final report is forwarded to the President and congress."

See Norah O'Donnell's interview with Rick Bright Sunday on 60 Minutes, 7/6c on CBS.

The video above was produced by Keith Zubrow and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.