Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.
Pharmacist Arrested for Selling Vaccine Cards on eBay
A Chicago pharmacist was arrested for allegedly selling dozens of COVID-19 vaccination cards on eBay, according to the Department of Justice.
Tangtang Zhao, 34, sold 125 authentic CDC vaccination cards to 11 different buyers for about $10 per card in March and April of 2021, the DOJ said.
“Knowingly selling COVID vaccination cards to unvaccinated individuals puts millions of Americans at risk of serious injury or death,” said Emmerson Buie, a special-agent-in-charge with the FBI’s Chicago field office. “To put such a small price on the safety of our nation is not only an insult to those who are doing their part in the fight to stop COVID-19, but a federal crime with serious consequences.”
Zhao is a licensed pharmacist in Illinois and worked for Company 1, a pharmacy that distributed and administered COVID-19 vaccines.
He made an initial court appearance on August 17, where he was charged with 12 counts of theft of government property. If convicted, Zhao faces a sentence of 10 years in prison per count, DOJ said.
Who Can Leverage Moderna Vaccine Secret Sauce?
The U.S. government and Moderna share the secret sauce of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine, but precisely what details the company maintains control over and what the government can send to needy parties is unclear, according to a Public Citizen analysis of public documents.
The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) funded Moderna’s vaccine development along with NIH last year, granting $483 million to a company that previously had only made minimal progress in analyzing the mRNA technology that would come to earmark its vaccine.
Yet, while BARDA has access to the entire “vaccine recipe” and “unlimited rights” to contract-funded Moderna data, it “cannot use its contractual rights to share certain categories of information developed at private expense, including subsequent minor modifications.” These data are designated as “limited rights” data.
Public documents pertaining to these latter sections have been redacted.
“What data are Unlimited Rights Data, and what data are Limited Rights Data? A full analysis would become possible only with the entire unredacted version of the contract and access to the underlying data produced by Moderna,” Public Citizen wrote — noting it could not acquire that information.
But based on public information, the watchdog organization concludes: “Moderna likely did not use contract funding simply to make minor modifications to its existing manufacturing process. Instead, Moderna learned how to commercially produce hundreds of millions of doses on the taxpayer’s dime.”
Moderna “justifies redacting information generally because the information ‘would likely cause competitive harm to the company if disclosed.'”
National Drug Waste Report Rife With Conflicts
At least two medical professionals who contributed to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report that largely absolved the pharmaceutical industry of responsibility for millions of dollars in annual drug waste failed to disclose their connections to the industry, according to a Kaiser Health News report. The industry has also funded the Academies, KHN found.
Kavita Patel, MD, and Anupam Jena, MD, PhD, had financial and board ties to pharmaceutical companies when they participated in the National Academies’ assignment to devise solutions to combat the more than $750 million in annual drug waste. The committee advised the U.S. government to give up trying to recoup the financial losses and “concluded that Medicare should stop tracking the cost of the drug waste altogether” via a $1.2 million report issued in February.
Drugmakers have contributed more than $10 million combined to the National Academy of Sciences since 2015, including millions from companies with a stake in the drug waste report’s findings.
Patel and Jena both reported “relevant relationships” to the National Academies and their pharmaceutical connections have been publicly stated in other sources, they told KHN.
They had “no current conflicts of interest during the time the [drug waste] study was being conducted” from January 2020 to February this year, the National Academies said. Among the 14 committee members, two others did disclose potential conflicts of interest.
The National Academies did not disclose similar conflicts among committee members advising government officials regarding opioid use in 2014 and 2016, and again in 2017 regarding genetically modified crops.
The Academies plans to launch a new conflict-of-interest policy by fall.
Nonprofit Systems Scrapping Innovations for Almighty Dollar
Nonprofit health systems are dumping innovations they funded — even when proven to help patients — to pursue financial goals despite their stated missions, KHN reported via the Washington Post.
Many of these systems are acting as venture capitalists, funding healthcare start-ups to produce medical devices, software, and other innovations. Whether they succeeded in developing clinically helpful products or not, these systems are looking at finances and market competitions as primary drivers in evaluating the new tools — and not the products’ ability to treat patients. In some cases they have been tripped up “by long-term investments when their hospitals hit a budgetary bump or underwent a corporate reorganization.”
Dartmouth-Hitchcock, for example, scrapped an experiment in 2017 and sold the technology to a Swedish company for potential royalties when it encountered a short-term deficit and “unexpected technology challenges.”
“Though their tax-exempt status is predicated on charitable efforts, nonprofit health systems rarely put humanitarian goals first when selecting investments, even when sitting on portfolios worth hundreds of millions of dollars or more, according to a KHN analysis of IRS filings,” KHN reported.
Of their combined $283 billion in stocks, hedge funds, private equity, venture funds, and other investment assets in 2019, these systems invested just 7% in their nonprofit missions — as opposed to attempting to yield income.
“Health systems officials assert that many of these investments are dually beneficial to their nonprofit missions, providing extra income and better care through new medical devices and software and other innovations, including ones their hospitals use,” KHN reported.