Federal prosecutors this week charged a Southern California doctor with selling coronavirus treatments online — including a drug repeatedly promoted by President Trump — as a “100 percent” cure, officials said.
The doctor, Jennings Ryan Staley, 44, a licensed physician and the owner of Skinny Beach Med Spa in San Diego, was charged with mail fraud on Thursday for his role in selling “Covid-19 treatment packs” that included the medications hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California said in a statement. Mr. Trump has promoted hydroxychloroquine as a “what have you got to lose” remedy.
The treatment packs were billed as a “concierge medicine experience,” and retailed “at $3,995 for a family of four, that included among other things access to Dr. Staley,” the two medications, and “anti-anxiety treatments to help you avoid panic if needed and help you sleep,” prosecutors said.
Skinny Beach Med Spa, which offered a range of beauty-related services such as Botox, hair removal, and fat transfer, started advertising the packs in late March, prosecutors said. An investigation was opened after F.B.I. agents received a tip.
In a phone call with an undercover F.B.I. agent, according to court records, Dr. Staley said he was selling antimalarial medication that “cures the disease,” and identified the medication as hydroxychloroquine.
“It’s preventative and curative,” Dr. Staley said, according to prosecutors. “It’s hard to believe, it’s almost too good to be true. But it’s a remarkable clinical phenomenon.” During the phone call, they noted, he also mentioned another antimalarial drug — mefloquine — that he said he would sell to the undercover agent if he ran out of hydroxychloroquine.
Dr. Staley, according to prosecutors, said both drugs would totally cure Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and that taking it before getting sick would make one immune for at least six weeks.
When Dr. Staley was interviewed by the F.B.I. the following week, according to prosecutors, he said it “would be foolish” to tell patients that the treatments are a 100 percent effective cure for the coronavirus.
“We will not tolerate Covid-19 fraudsters who try to profit and take advantage of the pandemic fear to cheat, steal and harm others,” Robert S. Brewer Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said in the statement. “Rest assured: those who engage in this despicable conduct will find themselves in the cross hairs of federal prosecutors.”
Patrick Griffin, Dr. Staley’s lawyer, said Friday night that his client was following the example of the executive branch of government, which he said was now unfairly prosecuting him.
“The same executive branch that has been touting these two medications for weeks has now turned around and criminally charged an Iraq veteran, Dr. Staley, no criminal record, for doing exactly the same thing that the administration’s been doing this whole time,” he said.
Early reports from doctors in China and France have said that hydroxychloroquine, sometimes combined with the antibiotic azithromycin, seemed to help patients. But the studies were small and did not use proper control groups.
Mr. Griffin said that his client truly believed he was helping people during a crisis, adding that the treatment packs were sold at a fair market price. In an email, Mr. Griffin said Dr. Staley even gave the undercover agent “two for free. The opposite of scamming someone.”
He declined to comment on the claims prosecutors said Dr. Staley made about the medication.
“The proper forum for this conduct is really more of a state regulatory agency, instead of a federal criminal courtroom,” he said. “Really what we have here is a dispute about what a physician feels is in the best interests of his patients.”
But the case, Assistant U. S. Attorney Robert Huie said, is about the 100 percent curative claims made about the medication.
“Our case is not about the doctor touting drugs,” Mr. Huie said in a phone interview on Friday. “It’s not about whether drugs are good or bad, it’s about him telling patients, telling would-be customers, in an effort to sell his services, that what he’s offering is a 100 percent cure and it confers temporary immunity.”
That, he said, “is very different from arguing over the results of studies or the precise efficacy of a drug.”
If convicted, Dr. Staley could face up to 20 years in prison.
Katie Thomas contributed reporting.