Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.
Debunked Physician Group on the Front Line of Ivermectin Battle
America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD) has continued to promulgate the controversial drug ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment, linking patients to providers who promise to write prescriptions for the antiparasitic, reported Time.
Sometimes these promises are fulfilled, but other times AFLD charges patients the typical $90 consultation fee and leaves them hanging when pharmacies refuse to fill the scripts because the drug is not approved to treat COVID.
On an intake form, “prospective patients are asked, ‘What medication do you prefer?’ The user is then presented with three options: ‘Ivermectin,’ ‘Hydroxychloroquine’ or ‘Not sure,'” according to another report from NBC News.
Led by Simone Gold, MD, and backed by conservative advocacy groups, AFLD emerged last summer, initially hosting a seminar speaking out against pandemic lockdown policies and later launching a campaign against COVID vaccines.
Moderators of AFLD’s Telegram account said that the group has been overwhelmed by demand for ivermectin, telling users to “blame the CDC for the blockade” of the drug. Once the physician fee is paid, “this is out of AFLDs hands operationally because of HIPPA [sic],” they said.
AFLD also has been offering legal resources for healthcare workers who are trying to evade employers’ COVID vaccine mandates, according to Time, with some supporters reporting that “employers laughed off the vaccine-exemption forms they’ve [consumers] printed off the AFLD website.”
The group’s behavior has hurt its nonprofit standing. It is registered in Arizona as the “Free Speech Foundation,” but after it did not submit its annual report, its charitable status was recently dropped to “pending inactive.”
Despite this, AFLD’s Telegram account has surged to 160,000 users and its website traffic has quadrupled since April. The group has also crafted “Citizen Corps” chapters in many states, replete with their own Telegram channels and public events, Time reported. Gold spoke at an anti-vaccination protest in Santa Monica, California, just over a week ago.
Like other media outlets, Time had trouble divulging much other information about AFLD: “It’s hard to pin down how many people the group employs, how much money it’s taking in, or how that money has been spent, in part because the non-profit has failed to file required disclosures.”
AFLD did not speak to Time for the story.
Inside Pfizer’s ‘Variant Hunters’ Operation
Pfizer’s robust operation studying SARS-CoV-2 variants may help the company be prepared to introduce a new vaccine if needed, STAT News reported.
At their Pearl River, New York lab, a “virus farmer” grows the latest variants so researchers can examine their current vaccine’s efficacy against them. Their chief goal: to vaccinate most of the world against the virus and finally end the pandemic.
The team has also tested the existing Pfizer vaccine against the Delta variant, finding that it “was working well,” according to STAT News.
While there are “endless” new variants emerging, the team prioritizes studying those that are spreading internationally, are increasingly dominant, and are associated with higher death rates.
Pfizer is also developing a new vaccine with the Beta variant as its prototype, since this variant has “the greatest reduction in virus neutralization in the assay,” noted STAT News. “Studying the Beta vaccine has taken months, but Pfizer’s goal is to go from synthesis to creating a new vaccine that’s ready to roll out within 100 days.”
The company said that it hopes that the current vaccine’s sturdy evidence base will allow any new vaccines to be FDA-approved more quickly.
While professional athletes in team sports and golf are racking up increasingly high vaccination rates, about half of pro tennis players remain unvaccinated, the New York Times reported, as the U.S. Open kicked off in the New York City borough of Queens this week.
Less then 50% of players in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and just over 50% of players in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have been vaccinated, in comparison with over 70% of PGA Tour golfers and rates exceeding 85% for several American team sports (in which one individual’s positive COVID test can force an entire team to forfeit games).
Unvaccinated tennis players cited personal choice and being too preoccupied as reasons why they remain unvaccinated. France’s Gilles Simon had to withdraw from the U.S. Open because his coach tested positive and he was unvaccinated, while Sofia Kenin from the U.S. had to withdraw after she tested positive, though she is vaccinated. Tournaments on the pro tours have set up vaccination clinics for the players and their entourages.
“I was not against it to the point of never being vaccinated, I’m just saying I didn’t feel the need or the urge,” Simon said.
Responding to a comment from Stefanos Tsitsipas, a top-ranked player from Greece, saying that he would only get vaccinated if the tournaments mandated it, the Greek government told the New York Times that people like athletes who are widely admired should be “doubly careful in expressing such views.”
Both the ATP and WTA support the belief that vaccination is a personal choice, but are advising players to get inoculated against COVID. The WTA is striving to get 85% of its players vaccinated by the end of the year.
“While we respect everyone’s right to free choice, we also believe that each player has a role to play in helping the wider group achieve a safe level of immunity,” said the ATP in a statement. “Doing so will allow us to ease restrictions on-site for the benefit of everyone on Tour.”
“There’s going to have to be a lot of pretty long, hard conversations with the tour and all of the players involved to try and come to a solution,” said Andy Murray, a previously top-ranked player from Great Britain and an ATP Player Council member.