Yesterday, Dr. Rick Bright was suddenly deposed from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, an agency at the center of government efforts to produce treatment and a vaccine for the coronavirus. The firing “couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for the office, which invests in drugs, devices, and other technologies that help address infectious disease outbreaks and which has been at the center of the government’s coronavirus pandemic response,” reported the health publication STAT.
Today, Bright gave an explanation for his untimely departure: He believes he was pushed out for insisting on limits to the use of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment that Trump has touted as a miracle cure for the virus. “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,” Bright tells Maggie Haberman.
Bright also alleges that political appointees pressured him to support drugs promoted by Trump’s political allies: “I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.” That Trump loyalists’ lobbyists tried to subvert the scientific method to allow their donors and political allies to benefit from the billions of dollars in federal funding is an explosive and all-too-plausible charge.
The loss of one of the nation’s most highly regarded vaccine specialists is a devastating blow to what is quite literally the most important project in the world. It is also indicative of a Trumpian war on science of which Bright is far from the only casualty.
Also today, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump threatened to fire Nancy Messonnier, a CDC official, after she warned in late February that the coronavirus was likely to spread within the United States at a time Trump was denying it posed any threat. Messonnier, unlike Bright, was not fired, but either she or her supervisors got the message and stopped letting her speak publicly.
Yesterday, CDC Director Robert Redfield told the Washington Post that a second wave of the coronavirus may strike next winter, a warning contradicting Trump’s sunny promises that the economy will bounce back better than ever. Trump tweeted that Redfield was misquoted by “Fake News CNN” (where Trump probably saw the story) and would issue a correction. He hasn’t yet, but the message about contradicting Trump’s public line was surely delivered.
And also yesterday, a reporter asked Deborah Brix about a new policy by Georgia governor Brian Kemp to reopen even businesses that require close personal contact, like hair salons and tattoo parlors. Even though the decision violates the administration’s timeline, Brix refused to say so. Even contradicting a Trump ally is too dangerous.
The idea that government should be informed by neutral expertise is an ideological invention of the progressive movement, one that has never sat well with conservatives. Right-wing governments have habitually rejected scientific authority that offended either anti-government ideas or Republican donors — its rejection of climate science being the most prominent example. One would hope a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic would supply the urgency to shake the movement out of its anti-scientific impulses. Instead, the familiar patterns have returned.
Like many of his offenses, Trump’s politicization of science has inspired two different reactions among the conservative-movement professionals. One faction has faithfully echoed his line, dismissing the danger of the virus (except when Trump was taking it seriously) and touting hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug. Another faction has focused its ire on Trump’s critics. National Review anti-anti-Trump conservatives Dan McLaughlin (“Whether Hydroxychloroquine Works Is Not About Trump”) and Charles C.W. Cooke (“The weirdest part is the idea that Trump’s words about it (and Cuomo’s) are anything other than that: words”) mocked the notion that Trump’s public touting of a medication mattered at all.
Of course there was already evidence that the government was contorting itself to Trump’s whims. Politico has reported that officials at several agencies had to drop what they were doing and follow up on Trump’s hydroxychloroquine obsession, and Reuters found that the CDC bowed to pressure and changed its guidelines for prescribing the medication.
It is true that ultimately, scientific evidence can prevail. After a study yesterday found no benefit to the drug, Trump responded to a question by acting as though he had never promoted the drug in public: “Obviously there have been some very good reports and perhaps this one’s not a good report, but we’ll be looking at it.”
Yet the subversion of the scientific method has profound costs. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he expects scientists to follow his public line, which often departs from scientific reality. He is already urging states to relax the social-distancing guidelines his own medical experts have settled on. The fate of the country is resting on a fundamentally scientific endeavor, which is at the tender mercy of a president who cannot comprehend scientific values.