Bright, a career official, first joined BARDA in 2010 and was named as director of the $1.5 billion organization in November 2016, where he played a central role in the nation’s vaccine development, such as last year’s drive to develop a new flu vaccine, and response to biomedical hazards. BARDA also received a funding infusion from Congress as part of the Covid-19 response and has steered hundreds of millions of dollars for potential vaccines, including more than $450 million for a collaboration with the drug firm Johnson & Johnson to speed vaccine development.
But the Trump administration’s leadership team long faulted Bright for an array of management problems, including complaints about BARDA’s pace and strategy, concerns echoed by outside observers. For instance, Bright steered multiple investments with companies like Roche and Sanofi to develop what are known as IL-6 inhibitors, which target potential drivers of inflammation in Covid-19 patients with severe disease; scientists have found evidence that the IL-6 agents could prevent some of the ravages of Covid-19. But leaders and observers thought the decisions were duplicative, noting that Eli Lilly is also pursuing a government-backed investigation into IL-6 inhibitors too.
“That’s three bets on basically the same mechanism of action,” said one outside analyst with knowledge of BARDA operations. “To do it to the exclusion of all else was insane.”
Bright clashed with his boss, Robert Kadlec, the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of emergency and preparedness, over his leadership style and specific issues like whether BARDA was hewing to its mission of research and development or inappropriately expanding its portfolio into procurement too, said three people.
Two of Bright’s supporters said that BARDA was perceived to be slow because Bright — a career scientist — insisted on reviews of ideas that raised scientific concern, like the Trump administration’s recent focus on hydroxychloroquine. That drug, a malaria treatment, has been widely touted as a therapy for Covid-19 despite scant evidence that it’s been helpful, but HHS officials were told last month to prioritize it.
“BARDA is a terrific organization — both Dr Bright and its staff have a lot of experience in moving quickly in emergency situations,” said Nicole Lurie, who served as assistant secretary of emergency and preparedness under the Obama administration. “Rick has a lot of integrity, which is also especially important in pressured situations where everyone is panicked.”
An individual with knowledge of BARDA operations suggested that criticism of Bright’s investments in IL-6 was wrongheaded, given that the organization continues to have flexibility in how it crafts its response. The health department also has been plagued with broader questions about its responsiveness that go beyond BARDA, such as whether its agencies appropriately coordinated with each other on Covid-19 testing.
Other current and former health officials — including a prominent Trump appointee, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb — praised Bright’s work as the organization’s leader.
“At BARDA, Rick Bright was an outstanding partner to me, to FDA, and to our shared public health goals; including the approval of a historic treatment for smallpox and a vaccine for Ebola,” Gottlieb tweeted. “I look forward to his continued contributions to advance the health and safety of our nation.”
Bright’s abrupt ouster and comments to The New York Times have sparked fears that the health department — already wracked by years of high-level fights that may have hindered the Covid-19 response — will see more turf wars, specifically within HHS’ emergency-response division between supporters of Bright and Kadlec.
“It’s definitely going to be better, but it’s going to be painful for a couple weeks,” said one individual with knowledge of BARDA operations. “If it becomes a faction of Rick vs. Bob, that would be bad for the Covid response.”