02:59 - Source: CNN
Director of key vaccine agency says his dismissal was retaliation
CNN  — 

Senate Democrats are calling in a new letter for more oversight into why a top Health and Human Services official who was leading the development and purchasing of vaccines and medicines to combat coronavirus was reassigned amid the pandemic.

It’s the latest in a series of calls from Democrats on Capitol Hill to hold the administration accountable for its response to the crisis.

The top Democrat on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Patty Murray of Washington, is pressing Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar in a new letter Thursday for details about Dr. Rick Bright reassignment from the head of the Biomedical Advance Research and Development Authority, an early sign that Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork for more oversight in the days and weeks ahead.

“In the midst of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is of the utmost importance that there be stable leadership within HHS and that decisions are driven by science and the public health,” Murray said in the letter with Democratic colleagues. “Any leadership changes being made at this time should be executed only to the extent necessary to ensure the Department and its employees are best positioned for the COVID-19 response. Our response to this crisis cannot be steady if its leadership is being constantly shuffled and if experts are being constrained or removed when they insist on following the science and sticking to the facts.”

Bright said in a statement last week that his reassignment came after his “insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.”

Murray is just the latest in a series of Democrats to press for answers as to why Bright was removed from his post at BARDA. Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the HHS Inspector General asking for an investigation. And, Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, the chairwoman of one of the subcommittees, vowed to hold hearings.

In her letter, Murray pushed for more than just answers surrounding Bright’s reassignment, revealing that Democrats are preparing to lead a multi-faceted oversight charge in the months ahead, aimed at looking directly at the Trump administration’s shortcomings when it came to addressing coronavirus.

“Dr. Bright’s removal comes amid a number of troubling actions taken by the Trump Administration to limit the ability of public health officials to share information with the public about the outbreak and to push back against problematic decisions within HHS,” the letter said. “These actions threaten the credibility and effectiveness of the federal COVID-19 response. If employees believe they cannot speak up without facing reprisal, that could have a profound chilling effect—deterring employees from providing critical information about the virus and potentially harming efforts to find effective treatments or develop a vaccine.”

Murray is asking for Azar to respond to a list of inquiries related to HHS’s response by May 13 including, “What mechanisms are in place to ensure political and ideological influence play no role in the Department’s COVID-19 response, including personnel decisions?” and “Are there any plans for additional personnel changes in HHS leadership in the coming weeks or months?”