Tribune Editorial: Bad science meets worse politics

(John Locher | AP file photo) This April 6, 2020, file photo shows an arrangement of hydroxychloroquine pills in Las Vegas. Hydroxychloroquine is officially approved for treating malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, but not COVID-19.

Exactly how and why did Utah make a play to become the hydroxychloroquine capital of the United States? We need answers.

As the federal government sputtered a month ago and states began a free-for-all for masks and ventilators, Utah apparently decided to stake its claim on hydroxychloroquine, a malaria and lupus treatment which some doctors were trying on covid-19 patients.

In a move Gov. Gary Herbert now says he knew nothing about, the state of Utah made a deal with a Utah pharmacist to buy $800,000 worth of hydroxychloroquine — apparently just to hoard. It was never more than a questionable covid-19 treatment, and Utahns were never at risk of running out of it. But that didn’t stop state officials from making a purchase that far exceeded any known need in the state.

At the same time President Trump was overriding his medical advisers to promote hydroxychloroquine, the push in Utah was spearheaded by Senate President Stuart Adams, an honorary Utah co-chairman of Trump’s re-election campaign. On March 20, Adams threw a press conference at the State Capitol to promote the drug, and he included Dan Richards, the CEO of Meds In Motion, a Utah online pharmacist that happened to be sitting on a pile of the stuff.

Eleven days later, the state signed the $800,000 deal with Meds in Motion.

The weeks since have been a harsh reality for hydroxychloroquine’s proponents. A Veterans Administration study found those receiving it were dying at a higher rate than those who didn’t. The American Medical Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have now recommended against using it as a covid treatment, noting that it’s effectiveness is questionable but its risk is apparent. That’s on top of the fact that heavy use could deny medicine to lupus patients and others who actually do benefit from it.

The state also apparently vastly overpaid Meds in Motion. Generic hydroxychloroquine goes for as little as 10 cents a pill. The state paid $5.75 each. Nevertheless, as recently as Friday, state officials were still talking about spending $8 million more on the stuff.

The relationship between Adams and Meds in Motion deserves a hard look, but it took more than Adams to turn this into a fiasco. Who else was involved in the decision?

Herbert says he didn’t know anything about it, but it was an executive agency, the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, that authorized the deal. How did the chief executive, one who presumably is involved in daily briefings on virus response, not know? Why would his budget office do this without at least some signal from the boss? They don’t work for Adams. They work for Herbert.

And if that wasn’t enough, TestUtah, the much lauded Silicon Slopes-driven effort to develop a large-scale test screening app, is getting dragged on this, too. Apparently the original voluntary altruism of TestUtah.com morphed into a for-profit operation that sold the app to state governments in Nebraska and Iowa. No doubt leaders in those states signed those no-bid contracts because the state of Utah was behind it.

But then they found that the app was used to raise hydroxychloroquine awareness by including questions about it even though it’s a completely unproven treatment. What’s that about? Well, one of the executives running TestUtah, Mark Newman, also sits on Meds in Motion’s board.

Utah’s response to this crisis should be a proud moment. Our health care professionals have risen to the occasion, and the vast majority of Utahns are safely distancing. But state political leaders have given money and license to shameless promoters of baseless medical claims. We also have a lot of chlorine in our salt flats. Anyone want to get in on this bleach-drinking thing?

Wasted money aside, the real damage here is the blot it leaves on the truly outstanding medical science that goes on in this state. Don’t think this won’t affect recruiting at the University of Utah, which competes for research talent with the top schools in the nation. At a time when we have to dig out from economic collapse, we’ve tied a weight to what is arguably the state’s premier entrepreneurial engine.

For Herbert, he’s in that political hard place. He could admit knowledge and be part of it, or he could admit ignorance and be out of touch. He chose the latter, but that can’t be the last word.

The hydroxychloroquine saga is deeply offensive in multiple ways, and it deserves a complete, transparent and independent investigation. The roots of this debacle must be exposed so that it never happens again.

Correction: The state agency authorizing the $800,000 purchase of hydroxychloroquine in March was the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. A Wednesday editorial incorrectly identified the authorizing agency as the Utah Department of Health.