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Ousted HHS Official Dr. Rick Bright Files Whistleblower Complaint

Politics
Ousted HHS Official Dr. Rick Bright Files Whistleblower Complaint

By Julia Conley

A federal scientist filed a formal whistleblower complaint Tuesday, weeks after being reassigned from his position at the Health and Human Services Department following a clash with Trump administration officials over untested Covid-19 treatments that the president was promoting.


Dr. Rick Bright, an immunology expert and until last month the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), said in addition to retaliation for objecting to President Donald Trump's public insistence that hydroxychloroquine was effective at treating Covid-19, he faced sustained pressure from HHS officials since the beginning of the Trump administration to steer millions of dollars in contracts to the client of lobbyist John Clerici.

Clerici has a "longstanding connection" to Dr. Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, according to the complaint.

Multiple times beginning in 2017, when Trump took office, Bright was pressured to extend a government contract to Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, a client of Clerici's. In addition to being Clerici's client, Aeolus's CEO was a friend of Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor.

Bright refused to extend the contract, leading to discord between him and his superiors at the department. The tension steadily grew as Kadlec and other officials urged Bright to transfer $40 million from BARDA to the Strategic National Stockpile in 2018 to purchase a drug made by manufacturer Alvogen, another of Clerici's clients, among other disagreements.

According to the complaint, "Dr. Kadlec's frustration with and animus towards Dr. Bright reached its breaking point when, after the emergence of Covid-19, Dr. Bright resisted efforts to fall into line with the administration's directive to promote the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and to award lucrative contracts for these and other drugs even though they lacked scientific merit and had not received prior scientific vetting."

Bright also wrote in the 89-page complaint that he encountered pushback in January when he called on HHS to begin developing resources in preparation for treatment and vaccine research as the Covid-19 pandemic reached the United States.

"It was clear to Dr. Bright almost immediately that the virus was highly contagious, spreading rapidly, and could have a high mortality rate," the complaint reads. "Dr. Bright and his staff recognized the urgent need to obtain genetic sequencing information about the virus and to acquire viruses and clinical specimens from people infected with the virus to share with laboratories and companies... Dr. Bright initially encountered indifference which then developed into hostility from HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar, as Dr. Bright and his staff raised concerns about the virus and the urgent need to act."

The department leadership grew increasingly hostile toward Bright after he communicated with members of Congress, the press, and some White House officials—including trade advisor Peter Navarro—about the need to act urgently to confront the pandemic.

As CNN reports, Bright is now scheduled to testify to Congress as early as next week on the charges included in his complaint:

Bright filed the whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel about two weeks after being reassigned to the National Institutes of Health. According to the complaint, after removing Bright from his post at BARDA, HHS officials "unleashed a baseless smear campaign against him, leveling demonstrably false allegations about his performance in an attempt to justify what was clearly a retaliatory demotion."

The complaint calls for a reversal of Bright's reassignment as well as a full investigation into his charges of cronyism at the department.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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