Trump and Larry Ellison Precede Pressure on Vaccine Expert

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Larry Ellison, co-founder and executive chairman of Oracle Corp., speaks at the Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco on October 22, 2018.

Bloomberg

A leading federal vaccine expert who was ousted from his post this week felt compelled to eliminate expanded access to potential treatment for coronavirus patients after President Donald Trump discussed the drug with Larry Ellison, president of tech giant Oracle, reported NBC News Thursday.

The report comes a day after expert Rick Bright released a statement explaining that he had been removed from the head of a federal agency heavily involved in coronavirus response efforts after “resisting efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections. ” “

And it comes the same day that a chairman of the House committee asked for an investigation into Bright’s forcible transfer from his post as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a unit of the United States Department of Health and Social Services.

A source close to Bright who spoke with NBC News said he was told to put in place a national program to expand access to the drug hydroxychloroquine after Ellison, who raised campaign funds for Trump, and the president talked about it.

The program is said to lack appropriate controls for drug therapy, including peer-reviewed clinical data on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, according to NBC News.

The Washington Post reported on March 24 that Ellison had helped organize a partnership between Oracle and the federal government to collect “real-time data from doctors trying these and other unproven drugs” on patients from Covid-19 outside of clinical trials. The Post said Oracle plans to donate a related website to the government to help with this effort.

An Ellison spokesperson did not immediately respond on Thursday to CNBC’s request for comment on NBC News’ new reporting on Bright and the Trump-Ellison meeting. The White House declined to comment, and HHS did not respond directly to a request for comment on a possible link between Ellison’s meeting and the pressure felt by Bright.

The New York Times reported on April 6 that Trump “had expressed interest in hydroxychloroquine a few weeks ago, telling associates that Oracle billionaire and founder Ellison had discussed it with him.” Ellison is worth almost $ 70 billion, according to a Forbes tally at the end of last year.

Trump, at a press conference in early April, said five times, “What do you have to lose? Referring to patients with coronavirus receiving the drug, which is normally used to treat malaria.

After Bright was removed from his post as head of BARDA earlier this week, he was hired, with fewer responsibilities, at the National Institutes of Health.

Bright has since hired lawyers in a Washington, D.C. firm specializing in representing whistleblowers. These lawyers described his dismissal from BARDA as “retaliation, outright.”

On Thursday, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the office of the HHS inspector general, an internal ethics observer, to investigate the situation.

“I was particularly concerned about the Trump administration’s politicization of public health agencies,” the president, representative Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Wrote in a letter to the IG office.

“This most recent action, if true, raises more serious questions about President Trump and his administration’s commitment to science and the public good as government and the nation work to combat a health pandemic. unprecedented world, ”wrote Pallone.

In a statement released Wednesday, Bright said he was ousted after resisting widespread adoption of hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has promoted as a treatment for Covid-19.

Bright also said he believed he had been removed from office because he insisted that “the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to fight the Covid-19 pandemic” be invested “in safe and scientifically approved solutions , not drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific value. “

“Rushing blindly to unproven drugs can be disastrous and lead to countless additional deaths. Science, in the service of the health and safety of the American people, must always prevail over politics, “said Bright.

“I speak because to fight this deadly virus, science – not politics or cronyism – must lead the way,” he said.

An HHS spokesperson said on Wednesday evening, “It was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the chloroquine donations that Bayer and Sandoz have recently made it to the national strategic stock for use. on COVID-19 patients. “

Spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley added, “The EUA is what made the donated product available for use in the fight against COVID-19. “

Oakley later told CNBC on Thursday evening a statement released by HHS on Tuesday when the news was that Bright had left BARDA.

The HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawyers’ statement on Thursday. An HHS spokesperson, Caitlin Oakley, then sent an email to CNBC containing the department’s earlier statements on Tuesday and Wednesday explaining Bright’s exit from BARDA.

The statement noted that last week, the NIH announced a new public-private partnership “to accelerate the development of the COVID-19 vaccine and treatment options”.

“Given the simultaneous importance of accelerating the development of diagnostic tests for COVID-19, Dr. Rick Bright will transfer the skills he has applied as Director of [BARDA to NIH] as part of a bold plan to accelerate the development and deployment of new point-of-care testing platforms, “said HHS on Tuesday.

Trump, at a press conference on Wednesday evening, said, “I have never heard of him,” when asked about Bright’s allegations.

Bright’s lawyers Debra Katz and Lisa Banks said on Wednesday that “the results of the administration’s refusal to listen to the experts and set aside those like Dr. Bright who point out any errors in the government’s response will continue to d ‘be catastrophic for the Americans. »People. “

“We will ask the Office of the Special Advocate to request the suspension of the dismissal of Dr. Bright and allow Dr. Bright to remain on the job pending the appointment of the OSC and [HHS inspector general’s] investigation of this illegal forced transfer. “

As of Thursday, there were more than 842,600 cases of coronavirus in the United States, with at least 46,785 deaths linked to Covid-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

An analysis released Tuesday found that there was no benefit in using hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus.

In fact, the analysis found that there were more deaths in Covid-19 patients in veteran hospitals in the United States who received hydroxychloroquine compared to those who received standard care.

On March 21, Trump tweeted that “HYDROXYCHLOROQUIN & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance of being one of the greatest game changers in the history of medicine. Azithromycin is an antibiotic.

On Tuesday, a group of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases advised doctors not to use a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin in the treatment of Covid-19 “because of the potential for toxicities “

The panel said the drugs should only be used in combination in clinical trials.

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