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What Is The Significance Of Rick Bright's Whistleblower Complaint

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

While Americans have been in lockdown eagerly awaiting solutions, a vaccine expert inside the government was being ignored, or so he says. Rick Bright was the director of a major federal vaccine agency called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and that would be BARDA for short. Well, last month, Rick Bright was reassigned. Bright filed a complaint - a whistleblower complaint, claiming this reassignment was an act of retaliation by the Trump administration, which had ignored his repeated warnings about the coronavirus. Here to break down Bright's complaint and preview his House testimony, which is slated for tomorrow, is Dan Diamond, a reporter for Politico.

Welcome, Dan.

DAN DIAMOND: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell us a little bit more about Rick Bright. I know you have read his complaint, all 63 pages of it, and you have verified a lot of it. Give us the gist.

DIAMOND: Rick Bright, who was abruptly transferred about three weeks ago to a smaller role at the National Institutes for Health, has alleged that his transfer was politically motivated, that he had been raising concerns for months about the Trump administration's problematic response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of his concerns were about supplies, about not enough masks. And I think his warnings have been borne out. The U.S. was caught flat-footed. And had the U.S. followed some of the concerns that Dr. Bright was raising and acted on them, we would've been in a better position.

KELLY: He was also one of the ones raising concerns about the malaria drug that President Trump was trumpeting for a while there as a possible way out of all this, right?

DIAMOND: That's right. That's right. And that's really the crux of his complaint and what I was trying to get to the bottom of. Dr. Bright says that he was the one helping block efforts to make that malaria drug widely available despite scant evidence that it would be effective for COVID-19.

KELLY: OK.

DIAMOND: It's not clear, though, that he went as far as his allegations suggest that he did. And there's some evidence that he may have actually been more favorable to using the drug than Dr. Bright alleged in his complaint.

KELLY: Right. I mean, you have found as you reported this out - you've interviewed a bunch of people. You have found, as one often does, that it's complicated. What are some of the people saying who question some of Rick Bright's claims?

DIAMOND: Well, I think there are two areas, Mary Louise. One would be that Dr. Bright, while certainly not the biggest fan of using these malaria drugs, did help make it possible for the federal government to acquire them in the first place. He did play a role. He did not lie in the road and stop that project from moving forward.

I think a second issue is that Dr. Bright and his ouster - that was months in the making. I, as a political reporter, cover the agency pretty closely, and I talked to officials dating back to last year about frustrations with Dr. Bright and plans to move him early this year, even before we knew that COVID-19 was on the horizon.

KELLY: As we mentioned, he's going to be testifying. He'll be up on Capitol Hill tomorrow - I assume, actually. Is it going to be remote, or will he be there in person?

DIAMOND: I actually was talking to committee staff today. They were still working out some of the logistics...

KELLY: OK. All right.

DIAMOND: ...Given the staffing.

KELLY: So logistics, details to be worked out - but what are we hoping to learn from the testimony?

DIAMOND: It is being set up as a showdown into how the Trump administration has handled the COVID-19 response. I know Democrats are looking for clarity about Dr. Bright's warnings, whether he can elaborate on how officials receive them. Republicans will push back and ask if Dr. Bright is accurately representing his claims. He has retained the lawyers who worked on Christine Blasey Ford's accusation against Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans see that as a sign that this is a politically motivated issue, not just a scientific one.

KELLY: All right. That is Dan Diamond of Politico giving us a little preview of the testimony tomorrow from Rick Bright.

Thank you, Dan.

DIAMOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.