NPR Investigation: Web Of 'Wellness' Doctors Push Unproven COVID-19 Treatment An NPR investigation has identified a web of more than 30 medical practices and compounding pharmacies in over a dozen states that have made claims about thymosin alpha-1 online and on social media.
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Web Of 'Wellness' Doctors Promote Injections Of Unproven Coronavirus Treatment

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Web Of 'Wellness' Doctors Promote Injections Of Unproven Coronavirus Treatment

Web Of 'Wellness' Doctors Promote Injections Of Unproven Coronavirus Treatment

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now a look at the coronavirus pandemic and how some people are allegedly trying to profit off of people's fears. An NPR investigation has revealed a web of doctors in the wellness industry marketing an unproven drug for COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration has never approved the drug for any condition, and as NPR's Tom Dreisbach reports, there are now calls for the agency to investigate.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: The drug is called thymosin alpha-1, and there are three steps to it reaching consumers. First, labs known as compounding pharmacies supply and promote the drug. Next, doctors in the wellness industry market the drug on social media and prescribe it to patients. And finally, the federal government fails to deter many false and misleading health claims. Let's start with the compounding pharmacies. In March, a man named Ryan Smith gave a video presentation to doctors on drugs they could give their patients for COVID-19.

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RYAN SMITH: We're not thinking this is going to be a super-deadly virus. With that being said, obviously, we want to talk about some of the things we can do to help with prevention. I mean, it's something you can do to sort of market to your patients.

DREISBACH: Smith is a vice president of the company Tailor Made Compounding. It's a compounding pharmacy. Don't think like CVS or Walgreens. It's a facility that can legally make customized drugs for patients. In his presentation, Smith falsely claimed that thymosin alpha-1 was FDA-approved and said that regular injections could help patients with everything from Lyme disease to anti-aging to COVID-19.

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SMITH: ...Because it has such positive effects, no negative effects. And if they can only afford one product, this would be the one for both prophylaxis and treatment.

DREISBACH: The FDA says there is no reliable scientific evidence that the drug should be used for COVID-19. So that's compounding pharmacies. Next step - the doctors who amplify these messages on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR #1: This is a very powerful, prescription-grade protein called thymosin alpha-1.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR #2: It's called thymosin alpha.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR #3: A drug called thymosin alpha-1.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR #4: It will help boost your immune system.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR #5: To seek out and kill viruses like COVID-19.

DREISBACH: We found more than 30 doctors in Tennessee, Texas, Florida, California and several other states promoting the drug. A doctor who developed a supplement for Gwyneth Paltrow's brand Goop sold it. Injections cost up to $400 for a 10-syringe set, all out of pocket. It's unclear how many patients may have been prescribed the drug, and we've not yet found evidence that people have been harmed by the drug. But there's reason to worry. In general, drugs from compounding pharmacies are not as strictly regulated. Here's former FDA official Julie Dohm.

JULIE DOHM: They are subject to a lower quality standard, and so it's very important that they really only be used when medically necessary.

DREISBACH: In the past, the FDA warned Tailor Made Compounding that problems in its labs put patients' health at risk. And Ryan Smith, the man who led the company's presentation, was previously convicted of criminal voyeurism after dropping out of the University of Kentucky Medical School in 2015.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Police accuse a former U.K. student - listen to this - of putting cameras in some women's restrooms on campus.

DREISBACH: Kentucky state police records say Smith is now a registered sex offender and that a victim was 16 years old. Smith and Tailor Made Compounding did not respond to requests for comment. The Trump administration has said it has taken unprecedented action to stop misleading advertising about purported COVID cures with lawsuits and even criminal charges. But those efforts clearly did not deter claims about thymosin alpha-1, says Bonnie Patten of the group Truth in Advertising.

BONNIE PATTEN: Given the limited resources, they've done about the best they can, but it's definitely not enough to stop the multitude of scams and schemes that are out there.

DREISBACH: The FDA has been slow to act, according to Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. He's an Illinois Democrat who's led investigations into alleged COVID scams.

RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI: Junk products and bad actors take advantage of the situation, and then only later on does the Trump administration get into the action. But oftentimes it's too late, and a lot of the damage has been done.

DREISBACH: The FDA declined to answer our questions, but Krishnamoorthi said the agency should begin an investigation into the people selling thymosin alpha-1 to find out if anyone has actually gotten hurt. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

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