April 30, 2020

Wyden Presses for Answers Following Ouster of Vaccine Development Head, Possible Political Interference in COVID-19 Response

Trump administration reportedly removed Dr. Rick Bright as head of BARDA due to his insistence on scientifically vetted treatments

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today joined U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and 18 other senators to express their concern regarding troubling reports of political influence in the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response.

In a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, the senators pressed for answers regarding staffing issues related to the COVID-19 response efforts at HHS. The senators specifically asked about the removal of Dr. Rick Bright as Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) earlier this month.

“We write to raise concerns about reports of political interference in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and whether turmoil and staff turnover are hindering your agency’s work. Recent reports about the demotion of the Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) again raise concerns about whether political and ideological influence instead of public health and scientific expertise are driving decisions at the Department and across the federal government,” the senators wrote.

“In the midst of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is of the utmost importance that there be stable leadership within HHS and that decisions are driven by science and the public health. Any leadership changes being made at this time should be executed only to the extent necessary to ensure the Department and its employees are best positioned for the COVID-19 response.  Our response to this crisis cannot be steady if its leadership is being constantly shuffled and if experts are being constrained or removed when they insist on following the science and sticking to the facts,” the senators continued.

According to reports, and his own account, Dr. Bright was removed from the position in retaliation for insisting that treatments being touted by the Trump administration be scientifically tested. The senators also raised concerns regarding several other troubling issues—including one incident where a senior Health Department official faced reassignment for raising concerns about the lack of protections for HHS staff receiving passengers repatriated from Wuhan, and another where someone with no public health, management or medical experience was given a key leadership position in the COVID-19 response efforts.

Wyden has been critical of missteps at Trump’s HHS in managing the COVID-19 response. In February, Wyden expressed alarm at the treatment of a Health Department whistleblower who raised issues with the lack of training and protections for HHS staff deployed to assist in the repatriation of citizens returning to the U.S. due to COVID-19.

Alongside Wyden and Murray, the letter was also signed by U.S. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Tom Udall, D-N.M., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

A copy of the letter is available here.