Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.
COVID Aid Grifters Waste Billions
What do a private island, Rolex watches, and an alpaca farm all have in common? People bought those things — among other outrageous luxuries — using billions in stolen COVID aid money, according to the AP.
The combined grifts may total as much as $280 billion in stolen COVID aid and another $123 billion COVID aid wasted or misspent. That loss totals about 10% of the $4.3 trillion the U.S. government spent on pandemic aid, the AP reported.
The grifters came from all walks of life. Konstantinos Zarkadas, MD, of Glen Cove, New York, was deeply in debt and falsified 11 different pandemic aid applications to get $3.8 million from the government, AP reported. He used $80,000 of the aid to settle a federal lawsuit, which alleged that Zarkadas dispensed more than 20,000 doses of weight-loss drugs without keeping accurate records — a violation of the Controlled Substances Act, according to prosecutors.
Zarkadas is now serving a more than 4-year sentence, had to pay millions in restitution, and forfeited the luxury wristwatches he bought. New York also revoked his medical license.
Another culprit was Patrick Parker Walsh, a Florida businessman who stole nearly $8 million in COVID aid, which he used to buy an island. He also got caught and is serving a more than 5-year sentence.
So far, several thousand culprits have been charged with fraud, but only $1.4 billion in stolen aid has been seized back.
Inside Mandy Cohen’s CDC
The Washington Post was given 3 days of access to new CDC director Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH, attending public and private meetings with her and getting insights into how Cohen is attempting to rebuild trust in the agency — both with the public and internally.
To enhance internal communication, she circulated a “Mandy Cohen User Guide” detailing how she best receives information. She also has been urging CDC messaging to be shorter and sweeter. Cohen also takes to social media to address issues — like this season’s rocky COVID shot roll out — to increase transparency.
However, her most time sensitive public health priority are respiratory viruses, including RSV, COVID, and flu — all of which she’s attacking with gumption that some staff don’t view as necessary, the Post reports. CDC senior officials told the Post that Cohen “prompted the agency to activate its second-highest level of emergency status — just one level down from the agency-wide mobilization at the height of the pandemic.”
Her other priorities are opioid use as well as maternal and infant health. While not everyone is on board with her approach, some past critics of the CDC told the Post that Cohen has potential.
For instance, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is on the committee that oversees the CDC, said Cohen is “more forthcoming and quicker to respond” than past leadership and that “She seems to understand what the problems are.”
Misleading Data From Esteemed Neurologist’s Lab?
Berislav Zlokovic, MD, PhD, of the University of Southern California and ZZ Biotech, is well known for his award-winning neuroscience research on topics ranging from pericytes to Alzheimer’s disease. He’s received $93 million in grant funding from the NIH across his career, and his research on the compound 3K3A-APC — which may limit brain damage after strokes — led to an expedited trial. However, his work has been called into question by fraud investigators and former lab members, according to an investigation in Science.
Science obtained a 133-page dossier that a small group of whistleblowers submitted to the NIH. They raised concerns about 35 studies that may contain forged images and less-promising results — including the trial of 3K3A-APC. The dossier purports that 6 out of 66 patients who received the compound died in the first week after treatment, compared with 1 in 44 in the placebo group, though deaths evened out by one month. Those who took the compound also had higher rates of disability and dependency at the end of the trial, the whistleblowers allege.
Independent experts who reviewed the dossier also found the findings alarming. Many concluded the results and images “appear doctored in ways that could affect the interpretation of the data,” according to the article.
In addition to the dossier, four former Zlokovic lab staffers anonymously spoke with Science and described a culture of intimidation and bad science. “There were clear examples of him instructing people to manipulate data to fit the hypothesis,” one told Science.