This scientist blew the whistle on Trump’s COVID-19 response—now he aims to stop future pandemics | Science

In May 2020, with anonymous callers vowing to kill him and similar threats mounting on social media, Rick Bright gave up his cellphone and went into hiding for more than a month. “If I heard tires rolling over the road in the middle of the night in the driveway where I was staying, it was panic,” says the 55-year-old immunologist, who until that month had been a powerful, if obscure, U.S. government public health official.

The threats began after Bright filed a whistleblower suit alleging he had been demoted from the top job at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for protesting the government’s COVID-19 contracts and what he saw as its misguided, plodding response to the growing pandemic. He accused his bosses of trying to steer taxpayer dollars to firms run by “cronies” or “for political purposes.” The “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the complaint stated, is that he publicly criticized hydroxychloroquine—the antimalaria drug then-President Donald Trump had touted as a coronavirus remedy—as useless.

The suit and his congressional testimony that soon followed catapulted Bright into the public eye. A 60 Minutes story described him as “the highest ranking government scientist to charge the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been slow and chaotic.” Trump took to Twitter to assail him, but many of Bright’s peers in public health cheered him. “He was one of the very early people to tell the American people what was going on,” says Nicole Lurie, who during former President Barack Obama’s administration oversaw BARDA as assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “He had a lot of guts.”

Bright’s abrupt, tumultuous exit from BARDA, where he had for 4 years overseen a $1 billion–plus research budget aimed at protecting the country from pandemics and bioweapons, marked but one more dramatic chapter in a rough-and-tumble life. Now, in a bold gamble on his ability to make something from nothing, the Rockefeller Foundation has hired Bright to head a new bid to protect the world from future pandemics.

Rockefeller will give the Pandemic Prevention Institute (PPI) $150 million in seed money over the next 3 years to tap and quickly share pathogen surveillance data gathered by myriad sources. “We’re setting out to build an environment for sharing data around the world at all levels—not just governments—that will allow us to make smarter decisions,” Bright says.

“I’m wildly supportive that the Rockefeller’s doing this,” says Eric Lander, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, which recently issued its own ambitious, multibillion-dollar prescription to better address pandemics. Rajiv Shah, Rockefeller’s president, is certain Bright can turn PPI into a powerful force. “Rick is absolutely the best person on the planet to lead it,” Shah says. Bruce Gellin, an epidemiologist who for 15 years led HHS’s National Vaccine Program Office and is one of PPI’s first 16 employees, says, “Rick is a 50-year-vision person. That’s what he does.”

But even some admirers wonder how Bright’s new venture will stand out among efforts by governments, academia, industry, and the World Health Organization (WHO) that share PPI’s elusive aspiration, including several new ones with similarly large backing. And his detractors charge that Bright can be arrogant. “His ego is bigger than his managerial skills,” says physician Robert Kadlec, Lurie’s successor as ASPR under Trump and the main target of Bright’s blistering whistleblower complaint.

Lurie sees it differently. Bright, she says, has no fear of speaking what he perceives as truth to power. “Even when it was unpopular, it was something he did, whether it was about programmatic stuff or individuals,” she says. “If Rick didn’t respect somebody, it was difficult for him to play along without saying something.”

Bright’s hardscrabble roots help explain his willingness to speak out, Lurie says. “When you overcome a huge amount of adversity, it builds a new kind of self-confidence and resilience.” But little else foreshadowed that Bright would become a leader in vaccine development and pandemic preparedness. Nearly 40 years ago, his high school in Hutchinson, Kansas, told him he could not attend his senior year because he had not received the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella. Turns out, he says, “my mother never vaccinated us for anything.”

Bright, who bounced between eight foster homes after his family fell apart because of an abusive stepfather, stresses that his mother wasn’t antivaccine. “We were a low-income family in a small town,” says Bright, who has six siblings. “It was an educational thing.”

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If Rick didn’t respect somebody, it was difficult for him to play along without saying something.

  • Nicole Lurie
  • Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations

He got vaccinated and finished high school—a notable feat given his background. “My choice in life growing up was to drop out of school early and take over the auto salvage business or work on the farm,” he says. College, he adds, never would have occurred to him, but while in high school he worked 40 hours a week at a restaurant owned by a family that valued education and encouraged him to keep studying. He enrolled at the University of Kansas as an accounting major, his ticket out of Hutchinson. But he soon dropped out and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, with no concrete plans.

A help wanted ad in the paper led to a job at a dance studio, cold calling potential clients. During a coffee break, one of the studio’s teachers—a “glamorous woman with a glamorous life”—asked him whether he had any interest in becoming an instructor. After 1 month of dance lessons, he had his first career. A wealthy student—an elderly woman who had lost a son his age the year before—took a shine to him and challenged him to restart his college education. She offered him $10,000 to quit his job, and he accepted. “I went back for a year and dropped out again, still lost.”

Bright became seriously interested in science when a lab that did diagnostic testing hired him to write educational material. He decided to try college again, moving to Alabama with the dream of going to medical school. To be eligible for in-state tuition, he needed to live there for 1 year, so he took a job at Blockbuster Video, which helped him pay off $25,000 in credit card debt. He eventually enrolled at Auburn University, paying his way through school by washing glassware in a lab. Bright was 30 years old in 1997 when he graduated, magna cum laude, with a double major in biology and chemistry.

For his Ph.D., Bright attended Emory University, where he told his adviser, HIV vaccine researcher Harriet Robinson, he wanted to do something unique. He was thrilled when she let him focus on developing a vaccine against H5N1, a highly lethal bird flu strain that had jumped to humans. “I want to save lives, and I want to protect people,” Bright says. He got his first taste of research with dangerous pathogens, running experiments in high-biosecurity labs at the nearby Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Bright returned to CDC after getting his Ph.D., studying the limitations of an entire class of influenza drugs and publishing first-author papers in The Lancet and JAMA. He soon turned to influenza vaccines again, first at an up-and-coming company called Novavax (which recently developed a COVID-19 vaccine) and then at PATH, a nonprofit that focuses on global health. There he helped a government-owned manufacturer in Vietnam produce shots for seasonal and potentially pandemic influenza viruses.

The PATH project received funding from BARDA, which lured Bright in 2010 to oversee its international projects, and he soon moved into the influenza and emerging diseases division. Ted Ross, a postdoc in Robinson’s lab while Bright was doing his Ph.D. who now develops influenza vaccines at the University of Georgia, Athens, soon found himself seeking money from his old friend and collaborator—who sometimes turned him down. “He could listen to 100 proposals and not really flinch,” Ross says. “He knew when people were kind of BS-ing him versus what was real.”

During Bright’s decade at BARDA, he oversaw billions of dollars of investments into countermeasures against potential chemical and nuclear threats, as well as drugs and vaccines for bioweapons and infectious diseases such as pandemic influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Zika, and then COVID-19. He also helped shape the government’s response to epidemics at home and abroad, represented the country at WHO, and regularly briefed Congress. As Bright documents in his whistleblower suit, he received “stellar performance appraisals” from no less than Kadlec.

Bright says tensions with Kadlec predated the pandemic. The former Air Force officer, he asserts, believed BARDA should emphasize protecting against bioweapons over emerging infectious diseases. But COVID-19 made simmering bad blood boil. Bright and Kadlec battled about whether to fund specific masks, drugs, and vaccines to thwart SARS-CoV-2. Discord also grew after Bright visited the White House at the invitation of Peter Navarro, a trade adviser to Trump who early on advocated for more aggressive actions to stop the emerging virus. Bright says he lobbied for a crash program to make COVID-19 vaccines—a pandemic “Manhattan Project”—which Navarro spelled out in a memo on 9 February 2020 to the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. It took 2 months before HHS endorsed the concept, when it formed Operation Warp Speed.

Kadlec, Bright contends, was livid about the meetings with Navarro, which spurred the White House to push HHS to ramp up mask production, purchase potentially helpful drugs, and invest billions in vaccine development. “Kadlec was very uncomfortable with it,” Bright says. “He actually could see that pressure was mounting. There were jokes in the hallway about Rick and his new friend, Peter.”

Rick Bright testifying in Congress.
Rick Bright drew the ire of former President Donald Trump with a whistleblower complaint and congressional testimony about the federal response to COVID-19. Shawn Thew/The New York Times/Redux

Bright also convinced Congress that to better respond to the pandemic, BARDA needed a substantial infusion of funding that it could control—without ASPR’s oversight. And then Bright shared with a reporter concerns about what he later called in his complaint HHS’s “reckless and dangerous push” of hydroxychloroquine and its analogs as COVID-19 treatments. On 20 April 2020, Kadlec transferred him from BARDA to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to oversee a new project on COVID-19 diagnostics.

Bright recognized the importance of ramping up diagnostics, but he charged that the transfer amounted to retaliation. In his richly detailed, 63-page complaint—which included Navarro’s memo as one of 61 exhibits—Bright made allegations of fraud, cronyism, waste, and abuse of power within the federal COVID-19 response. According to Bright’s lawyers, the Office of Special Counsel—an independent federal agency that oversees the Whistleblower Protection Act—promptly concluded that Bright’s complaint documented a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” and referred the matter to HHS for an investigation.

On the morning of 14 May 2020, shortly before Bright was set to testify at a congressional hearing, Trump attacked. “I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, never met him or even heard of him,” Trump tweeted. “But to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!”

At the hearing, Bright warned that the U.S. response to the pandemic had gone awry. “Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history,” he said. Asked about Trump’s downplaying the pandemic’s threat in the preceding months, Bright minced his words—but the criticism was plain: “I believe Americans need to be told the truth,” he said. “And I believe that the best scientific guidance and advice was not being conveyed to the American public during that time.”

Kadlec, who was not allowed to respond to Bright’s allegations while he was ASPR, was outraged. “You want to talk about some hurt feelings? You got it here, buddy,” says Kadlec, who now works on the minority Republican staff of the U.S. Senate health committee. He acknowledges that they had different views about BARDA’s role from the start, but says his mandate required addressing both bioterror and infectious disease equally. Kadlec says shifting Bright to NIH wasn’t retaliation, but rather part of the war on COVID-19. “This is my military background. The mission was to save lives, and the immediate mission is, ‘We need diagnostics—Rick, go over there.’”

“None of [Bright’s] allegations have been substantiated,” asserts a former HHS lawyer who helped evaluate the whistleblower complaint and asked not to be identified. Many come down to what that lawyer, who was appointed by the Trump administration, sees as professional judgment calls. “Rick did not play well with others,” the lawyer says. “He wanted to be the guy that called the shots, and he didn’t want any criticism or oversight or accountability or checks on that authority.”

After Bright’s congressional testimony, Navarro called his former ally “a deserter in the war on the China virus.” When Bright appeared on 60 Minutes a few days later, Trump lashed out at him again, tweeting that he “fabricates stories,” “spews lies,” and is “a creep.” Bright says unknown people subsequently began to call his relatives about his personal life, trying to dig up dirt about boyfriends, even though he is openly gay. “It was disgusting,” he says.

Bright’s fall from grace didn’t last long. President-elect Joe Biden made him an adviser on a COVID-19 transition team. In August 2021, HHS settled the whistleblower suit with Bright, agreeing to back pay and damages for “emotional stress and reputational damage,” according to his lawyers. They add that HHS has a separate, ongoing investigation into his allegations about contract improprieties and inappropriate responses to the pandemic. (HHS would not confirm or deny this.) And Bright is trying again to head off pandemics, this time from outside government.

PPI’s vast office space in Washington, D.C., isn’t just pandemic empty—it’s startup empty. As Bright begins to fill its cubicles with disease modelers, global health specialists, political scientists, epidemiologists, and health economists, he recognizes that his vision for PPI also still has many blanks to fill in—and knows he is entering an increasingly crowded and well-funded field. With backing from Germany, WHO will supplement its long-standing outbreak alert network with a hub in Berlin to analyze the incoming data and better plan responses. CDC is similarly launching a new group to aid local U.S. officials facing a spreading pathogen. “No one can do it all,” Bright says. “We have to now come together to decide how we divide and conquer this ecosystem.”

Pandemic preventers multiply

COVID-19 has illustrated the many problems the world has in spotting and responding to a global outbreak of a killer pathogen. A variety of new initiatives are forming to reduce the odds that history will repeat itself.

New effort Location Funder Amount (Millions $) Focus
Pandemic Prevention Institute Rockefeller Foundation, Washington, D.C. Rockefeller Foundation 150 Fill in gaps in global data collection and sharing, speed sequencing
Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington, D.C. U.S. government’s American Rescue Plan Up to 500 Help U.S. mayors and governors respond to outbreaks with better data, analytics
World Health Organization Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence Robert Koch Institute and Charité University Hospital in Berlin Germany 100 Cross-disciplinary effort to link surveillance data, improve analytics
Global Pandemic Radar TBD U.K. government, Wellcome Trust, G‑20 TBD Identify new COVID-19 variants, track new diseases, create surveillance hubs
Global Pandemic Prevention & Biodefense Center Washington, D.C., area U.S. government, philanthropy, global coalitions Up to 2500 Initially make monoclonal antibodies against top 100 pathogens

His recipe—building trust, collecting and sharing data, creating a reliable early warning system, and applying modern analytics—is far from unique. But PPI should be able to react more quickly to gathering threats than other entities, says Manisha Bhinge, a health economist and computer scientist on the team. Organizations like WHO, she says, “don’t have the space to be wrong or fail, so they often take a lot of time,” Bhinge says. “Our ability as a nonstate actor, and having some degree of independence, is to complement them and be wrong occasionally.”

Dylan George, an infectious disease modeler and a leader of CDC’s new center, suggests PPI has another advantage: more freedom than government or quasi-governmental agencies like WHO to quickly fund projects that, say, test wastewater or scale up new diagnostics. “A little bit of money early in an outbreak can have an outsized impact,” George says.

PPI now receives data from 30 partners that track diseases, including universities in several countries, the African and U.S. CDCs, large hospital systems, a livestock research institute in Kenya, a genomics center in Nigeria, and a molecular biology group in India. In addition to giving several of those partners a total of $20 million in grants, PPI has invested $4.5 million in a new South African center that aims to strengthen genomic surveillance of pathogens throughout that continent. “Today, health care providers, labs, and health departments are the primary source of information on new disease threats,” says disease modeler Sam Scarpino, head of PPI’s pathogen surveillance. “This traditional approach misses large swaths of the population who do not have access to quality health care. It also means that the first signs of an outbreak are detected weeks, if not months, after the emergence.”

The next step is to make sense of the data, Bright says. “What no one has ever done is put together the new, brilliant architectural system to connect all this disparate data together and analyze it the way a hedge fund manager analyzes all sorts of different data to understand where to invest,” Bright says. “Yes, a lot of data are now being generated, but I liken it to severed arteries: There is just blood spurting everywhere.”

The ultimate challenge remains translating the improved surveillance into earlier detection and better tracking. “After all the billions of dollars that I have been instrumental in spending to make a better vaccine, a better drug, or a better diagnostic, I’ve learned that none of that is effective if we don’t have a global early warning system that is agnostic of politics, without financial pressure, without someone waiting for another government to share information, without us waiting until it gets to our borders,” Bright says.

“It’s not just for governments and policymakers,” he says. “How do we reach my mother with a tool that can say, ‘It’s not safe to go outside today,’ or ‘I need to take extra precautions,’ or ‘I need to change my behavior?’”

In August 2021, Bright’s mother was living with a relative who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. She had received two doses of a vaccine, but she was at high risk of severe COVID-19, so she isolated herself at a different home. When she fell ill, Bright urged her to get a coronavirus test, but her doctor said it wasn’t necessary because she was vaccinated. But, he recalls, “She would call and she could barely talk.”

On 17 August, his mother died of what he is certain was COVID-19. “I’m heartbroken beyond words that this pandemic has now taken my mom,” Bright tweeted. “Please get vaccinated, tested & please wear a high quality mask (over mouth & nose). I’m in so much pain from losing my mother, trust me, I don’t want anyone else to feel this pain.”

This story was supported by a grant from the NIHCM Foundation.