California medspa doctor charged with fraud after claiming hydroxychloroquine “cures” Covid-19

Hydroxychloroquine has been touted by US president Donald Trump.
Hydroxychloroquine has been touted by US president Donald Trump.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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A Southern California doctor is facing federal fraud charges after he allegedly told patients that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was a “magic bullet” that “cures” Covid-19.

Dr. Jennings Ryan Staley, 44, is the medical director of the Skinny Beach medical spa in San Diego, which normally offers services such as lip fillers, botox, and fat transfers. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the spa appears to have been transformed into a service selling patients coronavirus packages including hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, the other part of the controversial coronavirus drug cocktail, as well as vitamin C and zinc for nearly $4,000. The packets also allegedly included “anti-anxiety treatments,” according to the FBI.  

“Complimentary COVID-19 Consultation & New Services Now Available – COVID-19 telemedicine consultations, testing, and treatment now available at home,” advertised a post on Facebook dated April 2.

Image for article titled California medspa doctor charged with fraud after claiming hydroxychloroquine “cures” Covid-19
Image: Screenshot/Facebook

On his clinic’s website, Staley describes himself as a former US Air Force major, and in 2006, according to his hometown newspaper, Staley served as physician in Iraq, treating Iraqi civilians and soldiers. Based on posts on his Facebook page he appears to be a fervent supporter of US president Donald Trump—himself a fervent supporter of hydroxychloroquine, which the president has described as a “miracle” drug

Evidence that the medication works for Covid-19 is shaky and doctors fear it could in fact do more harm than good.

In late March, says a criminal complaint filed today in California federal court, an undercover FBI agent responded to a Skinny Beach marketing email offering “family resistance packs” of hydroxychloroquine for $3,995, with enough 20 mg tablets for four people. The agent told Staley he’d be needing enough medication for six—him, his wife, their three kids, and his father, who was coming to live with the family.

The medical spa had been the subject of a recent local news segment in which Staley’s ethics were called into question for unnecessarily prescribing medication to perfectly healthy people. Staley told reporters that he had been receiving death threats. 

A few days later, Staley called the undercover agent and explained how his “Covid-19 management program” worked. If anyone in the family contracted coronavirus, Staley said, everyone in the household should start taking hydroxychloroquine to “prophylax” themselves.

“It’s incredible. There’s never been before, except for hepatitis C, in the history of medicine been a situation where a medication is completely curative of a virus,” Staley allegedly said, adding, “[Y]ou could be short of breath and coughing at noon today, and if I start your hydroxychloroquine loading dose, you’ll feel 99% better by noon tomorrow.” 

Prosecutors say Staley called hydroxychloroquine a “miracle cure” and a “magic bullet” that is “perfectly engineered.” If a patient ran out of hydroxychloroquine, Staley said he would provide an alternative antimalarial, mefloquine. Both medications provided a “100%” cure with immunity lasting at least six weeks, Staley allegedly claimed.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in medicine, just so you know,” Staley allegedly told the agent. “Really, I can’t think of anything. That, you’ve got a disease that literally disappears in hours.”

Facebook posts from Jennings, reposted by Skinny Beach, repeated the sentiment: 

Facebook fact-checkers labeled the post as “false.”
Facebook fact-checkers labeled the post as “false.”
Image: Screenshot/Facebook

When the agent asked Staley how he had managed to get his hands on a drug in such high demand that people who need it, such as lupus patients, are having trouble finding the drug, he reportedly explained that he “got the last tank of hydroxychloroquine smuggled out of China on Sunday night.” A broker “tricked customs” by labeling the shipment as sweet potato extract, which was later confirmed by US Customs and Border Protection records. 

During the call, prosecutors say Staley offered the undercover agent Viagra and Xanax in addition to hydroxychloroquine.

“Yeah, I mean, who doesn’t need those things,” the agent replied.

Staley said his wife would ship out the order, which arrived the following week.

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A short time later, the FBI showed up at Staley’s office. He denied all the accusations, and explained that he planned to get enough hydroxychloroquine to make 150,000 “family kits.” Staley claimed what he was doing was “perfectly legal,” citing a conversation with his lawyer who told him it was “fine.”

On Mar. 9, the spa’s Facebook page was still posting before-and-after photos of slimming cool sculpting procedures. After that, it started posting about coronavirus, eventually sharing Dr. Staley’s posts about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine.  One of the posts, about hydroxychloroquine being an antidote to Covid-19 (see above), had even been labeled by Facebook’s fact-checkers as “false.” Still, the post remained up as of this writing.

Some of his content had a political bent, with Staley fervently defending Trump’s response to the coronavirus. “The Trump-hating media would be thrilled to be able to point their fingers at the president,” he wrote, sharing an article from Politico about the FDA okaying an emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine.

Image for article titled California medspa doctor charged with fraud after claiming hydroxychloroquine “cures” Covid-19
Image: Facebook/screenshot

Staley is now charged with devising “a scheme to defraud, and to obtain money by means of false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises regarding the curative and preventative efficacy of his COVID-19 treatments.” Neither Staley nor Skinny Beach responded to a request for comment.