Top Government Scientist Transferred After Questioning Trump
The head of the federal agency working on a coronavirus vaccine said Wednesday he was removed from his post for questioning the effectiveness of an anti-malaria drug touted by President Donald Trump as a treatment for the new virus.
His complaint echoes the experiences of several government scientists who say they have been denied funding or reassigned for asserting the reality of human-caused climate change since Trump took office. Dr. Rick Bright said he was reassigned from his post as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) after resisting pressure to channel money toward anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.
"I believe this transfer was in response to my 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," Bright said in a statement first reported by The New York Times. "I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way."
Trump first promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine in combination with azithromycin in a March tweet, saying it could be "one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine."
HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the… https://t.co/0ZEF0mdfJg— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1584799988.0
The science has not supported his enthusiasm, however. An analysis of international health records found that the drugs taken together could increase the risk of heart failure and a study released Tuesday found that U.S. Veterans Health Administration COVID-19 patients taking hydroxychloroquine were no less likely to need ventilators and had higher death rates.
Bright, who was also a deputy assistant secretary with HHS, said he was reassigned Tuesday to a position with less responsibility at the National Institutes of Health, as NPR reported.
"To this point, I have led the government's efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the COVID-19 pandemic," he said. "Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with HHS political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early in vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives. I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections. 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."
HHS did not comment to requests from NPR or CNBC. When asked about the incident in his media briefing Wednesday, Trump said he did not know Bright.
"Maybe he was [removed after raising concerns], maybe he wasn't," Trump said, as NPR reported. "You'd have to hear the other side."
But Trump's former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb spoke highly of Bright.
"He was very good at running that agency [BARDA], and I think it's a loss to see him step out of that job right now," he told CNBC. "That's a position that's really critical to trying and getting some of these therapeutics [treatments for coronavirus] over the finish line. It's unfortunate to see a loss of continuity in that position at a really critical time from a public health standpoint in the history of that agency."
Bright's lawyers Debra Katz and Lisa Banks work at a law firm that specializes in representing whistleblowers. They said they would ask for Bright to be reinstated while the HHS inspector general investigates his reassignment.
"The results from the Administration's refusal to listen to the experts and to sideline those like Dr. Bright who point out any errors in the government's response will continue to be catastrophic for the American people," Katz and Banks said in a statement reported by CNBC.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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