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Top vaccine official got booted after resisting Trump-touted drug for virus

President Donald Trump has touted hydroxychloroquine as a

President Donald Trump has touted hydroxychloroquine as a "game changer" drug for the new coronavirus, though he's backed off recently. Credit: AP / John Locher

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Dr. Whistleblower, M.D.

Is it another story of science getting squelched to prop up President Donald Trump, like with the Sharpie-altered hurricane map? Or was the removal of the government's top vaccine development official just the outcome of bureaucratic infighting that began before the coronavirus pandemic? Or could it be both?

Dr. Rick Bright was abruptly dismissed this week as both the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, and as HHS deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response. The reason, Bright told The New York Times, is that he pressed for a rigorous vetting of coronavirus treatments with the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine that Trump repeatedly touted (though not so much recently) as a potential "game changer."

While in charge of "the government’s efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the COVID-19 pandemic," Bright said, “Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit.”

Bright, a career official who has led BARDA since 2016, said he had clashes with "political leadership" at HHS as he "resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.” He said, “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way.” He called for an investigation by HHS' inspector general.

Current and former HHS officials told Politico that the move was more than a year in the making — Bright had clashed with department leaders about his decisions and the scope of his authority, and was accused of not accelerating efforts at the pace the coronavirus crisis demanded. But a former Trump official, ex-Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, praised Bright’s work.

Asked about Bright's claims at Wednesday's daily coronavirus briefing, Trump said, "I never heard of him." But when a reporter pointed out Bright's reputation in the field, Trump shot back: “I know a lot of people who play baseball who can’t hit .150." Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases official, declined to comment on Bright's removal. But Fauci said he had heard that, in a new role at the National Institutes of Health, Bright would be responsible for the development of COVID-19 diagnostic tests, a “very, very important” issue.

Meanwhile, another curious personnel move came to light Wednesday. Reuters reported that in January, as the crisis was developing, HHS Secretary Alex Azar put an aide in charge of the agency’s day-to-day response who had minimal public health experience. The aide, Brian Harrison, joined the department after running a labradoodle-breeding business for six years.

Liberate — no, hit the brakes

Trump tweeted calls last week to "liberate" three states led by Democratic governors from stay-at-home restrictions, but at Wednesday's briefing, he upbraided a Republican ally, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, for moving too fast to let "certain facilities" reopen.

Reversing a statement of approval he made on Tuesday, Trump said he spoke to Kemp and told him, "I think spas, beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barber shops … It's just too soon."

Kemp's decision has drawn criticism from public health experts who have repeatedly stressed the dangers of relaxing social distancing measures too early. 

Trump emphasized that he was sympathetic to the small businesses affected by social distancing rules and their patrons. "Bikers for Trump, a lot of tattoos. I love them. I love these people," he said. “ … But maybe you wait a little longer." Kemp tweeted after the president's remarks that he appreciated Trump's "bold leadership and insight during these difficult times," but he didn't back down. 

Trump's cabin fever

The president's frustration at being stuck in the White House has aides and campaign officials looking for ways to get him back on the road, according to reports by NBC News and Politico on Wednesday.

With national stay-at-home guidelines still in effect, the timing of any travel remains unclear. But the White House sees the week of May 4 as a target for the president to start leaving Washington “in a safe and responsible way,” the NBC report said. Senior advisers are actively considering plans for Trump to visit health care workers, first responders and Americans whose jobs have been affected.

Trump hasn't left the White House for six weeks except for quick trips in March to send off the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort from its Virginia base and a visit to the FEMA headquarters in Washington. There are no current “Keep America Great” rallies on the schedule, but senior officials involved with the reelection effort are evaluating how best to organize potential gatherings.

Trump is planning to give the in-person commencement speech June 13 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Janison: Coastal contrasts

There are big differences in substance and style between the governors of New York and California, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. The contrast is on display in their "out party" approaches to Republican Trump, with whom both Democrats have clashed.

As a kind of old-fashioned operator, Andrew M. Cuomo has had a kind of sparring-partner approach to cutting desired deals with top Republicans in Albany — by leveraging, schmoozing and prodding. Clearly he's trying to apply that in a national forum with Trump. The two met in the White House on Tuesday and found enough to agree on.

Don't expect Gavin Newsom, a first-term Golden State governor, to travel east and try to match Cuomo's performance. Newsom is on a different track. He invoked California's power as a "nation state" to say he'd use its purchasing power accordingly. He hired a Chinese firm to produce hundreds of millions of respiratory and surgical masks, which was meant to cope with deficiencies in the Trump administration's response to supply shortages.

Mercer funding boosted 'shutdown' foes

A group founded and given major funding five years ago by Long Island billionaire Robert Mercer helped promote grassroots-flavored protests against stay-at-home orders in state capitals last week, The Washington Post reported.

The group, called the Convention of States, also has roots in the tea party movement, which also involved a mix of homegrown activism and shrewd behind-the-scenes funding. Trump has voiced support for the protesters, while also crediting the federal social-distancing guidelines he adopted with keeping the death toll from being many times worse.

But more polls in recent days suggest the movement isn't catching on. A Reuters/Ipsos survey found 72% of U.S. adults said people should stay at home "until the doctors and public health officials say it is safe." A Politico/Morning Consult poll found that just 14% of Americans think that officials should stop social distancing to jump-start the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus. A 76% majority think restrictions need to remain in place.

Covering the testing tab

If the House, as expected, approves the latest, $484 billion coronavirus relief package on Thursday, New York stands to get at least $1.5 billion for the state's virus testing and contact tracing efforts, reports Newsday's Tom Brune. There also will be more money for small businesses and hospitals.

The Senate passed the legislation Tuesday by unanimous consent with only a handful of senators present. House members were headed to Washington for a recorded vote.

A battle is heating up over the next phase of coronavirus aid. While Trump has expressed support for helping state and local governments, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is voicing resistance. He even suggested they consider declaring bankruptcy as an alternative to adding to the federal debt.

"My guess is, their first choice would be for the federal government to borrow money from future generations, to send it down to them now so they don’t have to do that. That’s not something I’m going to be in favor of," McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

After the radio comments, McConnell's staff sent out a news release under the heading “Stopping Blue State Bailouts.” Cuomo called McConnell's bankruptcy suggestion “one of the saddest, really dumb comments of all time.” Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) called the Kentuckian "the Marie Antoinette of the Senate."

Waving off second wave

Trump on Wednesday downplayed the danger of the virus returning in the fall and winter at the briefing, saying, "We may not even have corona coming back." And if it did, he said, it would just be in "pockets" and "embers."

His top experts contradicted him at the briefing. Fauci said he was "convinced we will have coronavirus in the fall," but he and Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, both agreed that the impact would likely be less because the country would be better prepared.

What could make it "more difficult or complicated," said the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, is that a resurgent coronavirus could hit at the same time as the seasonal flu. His comments to that effect to The Washington Post raised Trump's ire because of a headline about a "more devastating" second wave. Redfield said the takeaway should be that Americans could make coronavirus's return less complicated by getting flu shots.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Trump signed an executive order Wednesday restricting certain categories of immigrants from entering the country for 60 days, but the measure is more limited than the sweeping closure he described earlier in the week. Exceptions added before signing included immigrants already living and working in the U.S. who are seeking to become green-card holders, as well as the spouses and children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. It also won't stop temporary visas for workers in agriculture and tourism.
  • In a new warning to Iran, Trump vowed that if there's a repeat of an incident in which Iranian gunboats swarmed U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, "we’ll shoot them out of the water.”
  • Fox News polls shows presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading by 8-point margins in two battleground states Trump won in 2016, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
  • Biden plans to speak at the virtual graduation for Columbia University's law school on May 20. His granddaughter Naomi Biden is part of the class.
  • Coronavirus has changed the Trump campaign's plans on how it will seek to define Biden, The Associated Press reports. Before, it was to depict him as a corrupt Washington insider. Now, it will be to portray him as too close to China, where the virus outbreak originated and spun out of control.
  • The Trump International Hotel in Washington is asking the Trump administration for a break on its monthly lease payments because of lost business in the pandemic, The New York Times reported. Eric Trump said the Trump Organization inquired whether the General Services Administration was granting relief to other federal tenants. “Just treat us the same. Whatever that may be is fine,” the president's son said.

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