Whistleblower On How Political Pressure Affects Safety Of Coronavirus Vaccines
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And we're going to hear now from a pandemic whistleblower. Rick Bright was one of the federal government's top vaccine scientists as head of BARDA - that's a federal agency that develops vaccines and treatments. He was ousted from the job back in April, but he did not leave the government; he was reassigned to what he says was a lesser role at the NIH, the National Institutes of Health. Rick Bright did file a whistleblower complaint, alleging politics.
Bright says his work and that of other scientists was being ignored to meet political goals and advance President Trump's reelection aspirations. But Rick Bright stayed on the job until this week, when he resigned from NIH and the federal government. When I spoke with him today, I asked - what was the final straw? Why leave now?
RICK BRIGHT: I think the why now in the last week or so was because of my demotion and reassignment. The work I was assigned, I got done. For the last four to six weeks, I've had little to do. It's become painfully clear to me that the Trump administration does not value my decades of experience in developing drugs and vaccines and diagnostics, and I cannot sit idly by and watch people die and not do something about it.
It's important to go back - since the beginning of this pandemic, the administration, our senior public health officials, who we put our trust in to protect us and save our lives for these events, were taking reckless steps and promoting drugs that were not safe, not proven to be effective and, in fact, might actually be very harmful and cause death. And when I learned that their plan and strategy was to push some of these drugs out into the streets of America and putting lives at risk, I spoke up. I stepped out of line. I broke protocol, which basically is complicity to sit back and be quiet.
KELLY: You were raising this not directly with the president, presumably, but with scientists up the chain of command who you report to, including very respected scientists in this government. Were they urging you, hey, just ignore it - let's go with the politics?
BRIGHT: They were telling me to go with the politics. This was a directive from the White House. We had no choice. I had no choice but to get it done and get it done as quickly as possible.
KELLY: President Trump tweeted you were, quote, "a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to," end quote. To that, Right Bright, you say what?
BRIGHT: Well, No. 1, we're hearing that far too many times from this president. So anyone who speaks up and speaks out and speaks the truth is now labeled a disgruntled employee by President Trump. So we see a really bad pattern occurring here for truth-tellers who are being denigrated and criticized by the president of the United States. My record speaks for itself. We have a really strong organization in BARDA. We have a track record of having 54 drugs and vaccines and diagnostics approved by the FDA. These are lifesaving medicines at work today to protect the health of people in our nation and around the world.
We were making great progress. We put a strategy in place in January, before the president was willing to admit there was a problem. We implemented that strategy in early February, before the president was willing to tell Americans the truth about this pandemic. So at every angle, the president of the United States gave false assurances to Americans; I was pushing our team forward as aggressively as possible. I knew it was a deadly situation on our hands. Most scientists knew it was a deadly situation on our hands. My decision was to push forward, even if it meant going against the narrative of the president.
KELLY: Let me turn you to a vaccine. In your complaint, your whistleblower complaint, you write about tremendous pressure to have a vaccine ready by Election Day, which, of course, is now 20-something days away. It is not looking likely that deadline will be met. How do you read that? What does that mean?
BRIGHT: That's reckless. It's absolutely reckless. The president of the United States should stay completely out of any development and process associated with developing a drug or a vaccine or a diagnostic.
KELLY: What is reckless? You mean the political pressure to get a vaccine, to rush one out?
BRIGHT: To push it too fast, to rush it ahead of the science. I can guarantee you that we have a thousand or more really strong, experienced scientists inside government and the FDA, CDC, NIH and BARDA working day and night, doing their best to get a vaccine and drug available as quickly as possible. We have 10 times that many...
KELLY: But the political pressure hasn't prevailed. I mean, the president didn't get his way here. It does not look like we are going to have a vaccine rolled out to Americans by Election Day.
BRIGHT: I wouldn't trust that at this point. I - would not surprise me if President Trump or Secretary Azar try to use their authority to say anything that came their way between now and the election, that they would approve or give some special authorization for use or consideration for use. The scientists right now in the FDA are under a tremendous amount of pressure as they put forth the best guidelines to evaluate the safety of a vaccine.
They would rather have the vaccine sooner than later, but they're not willing to compromise the safety evaluation of that vaccine that would go into healthy people to prevent disease. But they are facing name-calling, denigration, political pressure by the president on the commissioner, on the career scientists, to break that protocol. And I tell you, they are resisting every single day. And it is demoralizing. It is distracting. It is causing, potentially, further delays at the vaccine because of the pressure and the limelight the president is putting on those hardworking scientist.
KELLY: How is it causing further delays? Because so much time and energy is being caught up in the politics here, is that what you're saying?
BRIGHT: Absolutely. It's very frustrating. It's very demoralizing. It's very distracting. And the more pressure that they're put on to move faster, to do things at the whim or the directive of the president of the United States, and especially if the FDA commissioner is allowing that pressure to sink down into the ranks of the career scientists - it is just nerve-wracking. It is distracting. That added pressure could lead to mistakes, could lead to someone making an error when they should be focusing on reviewing data every day.
KELLY: As someone who has had a front-row seat to government efforts to develop a vaccine, how confident are you that when one is released to the American people, it will be safe, that we should take it?
BRIGHT: What encourages me is the number of different approaches being used today to make a vaccine is unprecedented in every way. And I actually work very closely with many of those companies and their senior leadership and the scientists making those vaccines. I have a lot of confidence that they are doing the best they can and looking at every factor, and I know the scientists in the government are doing the same. I have confidence that they will rise up, they will speak out against their own career and against everything that can happen to them. They're going to do their best to prevent the president and political pressures to do something that's going to cause harm to Americans.
KELLY: Rick Bright, thank you.
BRIGHT: Thank you.
KELLY: That is vaccine research scientist Rick Bright, who has now left his leadership roles in the federal government.
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