By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Tuesday it has replaced Rick Bright as director of a key U.S. agency charged with developing drugs and vaccines for COVID-19.

Bright, who was director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, since 2016, has been moved to a new public-private partnership under the National Institutes of Health announced last week. He will oversee the acceleration of testing platforms for COVID-19, according to a Health and Human Services representative.

Bright, an expert in vaccines and therapeutics who served as an adviser to the World Health Organization, will be replaced by Gary Disbrow, his former deputy, who will serve as acting director of BARDA. The change was first reported by STAT news.

Under Bright’s leadership, BARDA recently announced nearly $1 billion in support of vaccine manufacturing efforts by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. In a recent interview with Reuters, Bright said the agency intends to support up to six COVID-19 vaccines in all. The agency has a total of $5 billion set aside for vaccine development.

BARDA serves under the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

HHS noted Bright’s “extensive experience and expertise in facilitating powerful public-private partnerships,” saying he will now transfer those skills “as part of a bold plan to accelerate the development and deployment of novel point-of-care testing platforms,” according to an emailed statement.

Bright started his career in influenza vaccine and drug development at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has a doctorate in immunology from Emory University in Atlanta.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)