Paul Huntsman: What I learned from ‘trade secrets’ recovered in Nebraska COVID case

Why are Utah state officials making it difficult to learn about Test Utah?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) TestUtah could be getting more contracts from the state as COVID-19 testing is done alongside Utah Valley Pediatrics at 750 W 800 North in Orem on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.

In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was “blown away” by the onslaught of new China-related counterintelligence investigations underway in the United States. He pointed to the 2,000-plus current cases related to Chinese infiltration in the United States.

This comes on the heels of officials at the National Counterintelligence and Security Center warning Americans against Chinese-related COVID-19 tests, citing concerns about how China may be collecting and using the personal data of Americans.

There is a Utah link.

I recently settled litigation meant to uncover so-called “trade secrets” of Nomi Health, a Utah company doing business in Nebraska. Similar testing was being conducted in several other states, including Iowa, Tennessee, and in Utah, where these efforts originated.

The settlement came just hours before depositions were to begin with Nomi executives.

A nascent Utah startup in early 2020, Nomi represented other Utah interests, such as Domo and Qualtrics. The state of Utah, under the direction of coronavirus task force leader Spencer Cox, also the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, used the good name of Utah to sanctify and legitimize the COVID-19 “testing and tracking” campaign referred to as “TestUtah.”

What initially was advertised as a “volunteer effort” morphed into something else. The state quickly executed a no-bid contracts of tens of millions of dollars. Utah officials followed up that windfall of taxpayer dollars by contacting GOP governors in Iowa, Tennessee, Nebraska (and other states) and exported this lucrative campaign outside of Utah to the tune of direct and indirect contracts worth more than $1 billion.

The test drew immediate and sustained criticism for its accuracy and integrity of data collection. As criticism mounted, Cox and leaders of the state’s Silicon Slopes quietly removed themselves from the public spotlight, avoided answering questions, deleted social media posts, and justified their actions as what can happen in the “fog of war.”

Over the past 14 months, I submitted 400 public records petitions in four states for documents that confirmed what on the surface looked to be, at best, a lousy political operation to rescue reputations and companies, or, at worst, a deliberate attempt to push a Chinese-originated test.

The litigation in Nebraska ultimately revealed that Nomi’s initial efforts to secure taxpayer funds had spread from Utah to Nebraska and had included retaining the services of Silicon Valley’s “favorite fixer,” Tusk Strategies, to aid Utah’s political and business circles in shielding their collaboration from public scrutiny.

Why did all these interests fight so hard to keep their campaign concealed? The highly redacted “trade secret” documents revealed a consortium of companies, led by Chinese-based CoWin Bioscience and Shanghai Liferiver.

What was originally billed as a Utah-produced coronavirus test was quite different. Though Utah tech executives promoted the tests as having “100% effectiveness,” and Utah’s governor at the time characterized the test as “95%” reliable, reports from other states and outside parties suggest those claims were exaggerated.

For its part, Utah has never made public any attempt on the state’s part to independently evaluate the effectiveness of those tests before promoting them. Utahns were guinea pigs.

As concerning as these discoveries are, it doesn’t come close to the unanswered questions about the integrity of the testing process and if our data or DNA was monetized for financial benefit. We know thanks to HCA Healthcare (Timpanogos Regional Hospital parent company), that Utah’s own Qualtrics “controlled the entire public testing process,” including test requests, reporting, control over patient information, test specimens and operation of testing labs.

Why did the state procure a test with ties to China but fail to disclose that fact? Why did it turn its testing over to Qualtrics, which is a survey or “experience management” company? What motivated the state’s decision to commit to the heavily criticized lab at Timpanogos Regional when that decision didn’t seem best suited to delivering accurate results?

For its part, Timpanogos Regional Hospital worked furiously through legal counsel in May 2020 to strong-arm the Department of Health into stopping all public comment about concerns about the quality of the lab’s work.

Even as we make headway into understanding the troubling relationship between our elected officials and Silicon Slopes entrepreneurs during the early days of the pandemic, elected officials in the executive and legislative branches are limiting access to state officials and making it more difficult for Utahns to access public documents.

The dots are not difficult to connect.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Huntsman.

Paul Huntsman is chairman of the board of The Salt Lake Tribune and chairman of its Editorial Board.