NEWS Q&A

Pandemic whistle-blower: we need a non-political way to track viruses

Rick Bright exposed former US president Donald Trump’s political meddling. Now he’s spearheading a privately funded initiative to rapidly contain coronavirus variants and outbreaks of other pathogens.
A man in a suit and tie, seen in profile from the shoulders up. A person in a mask is in the background, out of focus.

Rick Bright speaks at a congressional hearing on protecting scientific integrity during the pandemic in May 2020.Credit: Shawn Thew/Getty

Rick Bright put his career on the line last year, when he blew the whistle on how then US president Donald Trump’s administration was handling the coronavirus pandemic. Bright, who was then director of the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) — which is responsible for countermeasures against pandemics, bioterrorism and other health emergencies — was abruptly removed from the agency. Now, he is trying his hand at curbing outbreaks from outside the government, where he is focusing on genomic surveillance of viruses.

Bright’s formal whistle-blower complaint, filed in May 2020, alleged that the Trump administration was ignoring his budget requests aimed at mitigating COVID-19, and was awarding pandemic-response contracts to companies on the basis of political connections. But it was Bright’s vocal opposition to Trump’s promotion of the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, unproved against COVID-19, that allegedly led to his removal from BARDA. At a congressional hearing in May, Bright warned: “If we fail to improve our response now, based on science, I fear the pandemic will get worse and be prolonged.”

Last week, the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in New York City that funds science, announced that Bright would become the senior vice-president of its pandemic-prevention activities. His first move will be to spearhead a plan to use genomic sequencing and analysis to track the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in the United States, and to communicate results quickly enough to shape the country’s responses. Once that’s under way, he hopes to expand the system to track this virus and others in countries around the world.

Nature spoke to Bright about this project, and protecting integrity in science.

Why have you decided to create a virus-surveillance system?

We never want to be in this position again. I took some time to look at my experience, and I mapped all the various major vulnerabilities in our pandemic response, from the infection with a novel pathogen, to the last mile of vaccine administration. And the one gap I kept coming back to as the most impactful was the need for a resilient early-warning system.

The goal is to be able to detect something that has emerged — whether that’s a new coronavirus variant or a new virus — quickly enough so that we can contain it at its source.

Will Rockefeller give scientists grants to sequence SARS-CoV-2?

Sequencing is important, but it’s not our only emphasis. We’re hoping that the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] will follow through with its strategy of funding more sequencing across the country. But we need more than sequences to make decisions. So, we are trying to build the capacity to analyse those data quickly, and to create impactful analyses that will better inform public-health officials or government officials about the appropriate actions they need to take to get in front of outbreaks.

Why build this system outside the government?

We want to partner with the CDC and other national and international health entities. But there are advantages to having a neutral, non-political organization manage this type of information.

One is that a non-governmental platform would be less susceptible to politics, internationally and domestically. I’ve worked under four different presidents, and I’ve seen various levels of political influence, collaboration and cooperation with science. This last administration certainly had a way of suppressing and revising science-based messages, and that got us into this spot where we are today with the pandemic in the United States — and that really impacted the world. So, a non-governmental, non-political entity would have the ability to seal and protect those data, and to make sure that the world has access to all the same information at the same time.

Why, do you think, didn’t more government researchers speak out about the political meddling of the Trump administration?

We need more protections in place for government employees and scientists who speak out or come forward. It was a very difficult administration to work under as a scientist. My scientific colleagues in the government were afraid of losing their jobs, but were also working really hard to do the right thing and push for the best decisions with the right data. At the same time, you had the White House and politicians pushing out an alternative narrative. A lot of people were frustrated.

I could only take so much. For a while, I took a lot of notes, I was really uncomfortable in meetings and I took a lot of heat for pushing back. But when the administration clearly, in my opinion, showed a disregard for the general population in a subject area that I know a lot about — pandemic response — and pushed an unproven drug to the general public without close clinical oversight, that was a line that I could not cross. I had to speak out. I had to find an avenue to warn Americans about the pandemic and the potential risks of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. I took an oath to protect Americans. I felt I had no choice. I felt my life would probably change for the worse, and that I’d go through a lot of pain and frustration and retaliation from the administration. But it came on strong — I had to go into hiding for quite some time.

But, you know, it was worth it. And I hope that no other scientist ever has to find themselves in that position again.

Does a warning system help if a country has a leader who doesn’t listen to science?

Well, you have to have strong leadership, and the leadership has to respect science. But I think this system helps. Early last year, there was the narrative that COVID-19 was low risk and that it was not spreading in our country. But if we had an early-warning system that was neutral, and non-political, and was just like the weather report, individuals wouldn’t need to rely on someone in the White House to tell them what was happening.

I think an early-warning system for viruses and pathogens will empower individuals. Even if their government is unwilling to say that there is a danger, the data will be undeniable.

The United States was terribly slow to ramp up COVID-19 testing, although not necessarily because of the Trump administration. What happened?

This takes me back to my experience with the Ebola response, and the Zika response, and previous influenza response. I really hope that this is the last time that we have to learn this lesson. We were relying on the CDC to do all the work, when we have in our country some of the world’s best labs. Some of those are in public-health departments, some in private industry and some in academic labs. When we have a crisis, we should distribute this work so that we have the best and fastest outcome.

Instead, we have this bureaucratic process in the United States that slowed down the response. For future outbreaks, we need to rely on a distributed plan to use the experts we have across the country. I know they can do it.

Nature 592, 21 (2021)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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