Seattle entrepreneur and scientist Johnny Stine started his small biotech company more than a decade ago with a reputation as a bit of a maverick.
But last week, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson told Stine in a cease-and-desist letter he’d gone too far out on a limb by claiming on Facebook he’d developed a vaccine for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Stine said in his post his vaccine rendered him “immune” to the illness and that he’d be willing to sell it to the first 100 responders for $400 apiece.
“I’m offering my vaccine to people who simply feel that they need it because of increased risk or simply because it would make them comfortable,” Stine wrote. “I’m not sure how much of the reports are hype or not, but the deaths are real and thus I can no longer sit on the sidelines.”
Ferguson’s letter to Stine and his North Coast Biologics company warns he’d better sideline such talk or face a lawsuit and fines for “making false or unsupported claims” that might deceive the public into thinking a novel coronavirus vaccine exists. Ferguson gave Stine five days to show he had complied.
Stine did not return phone calls.
The warning comes amid a growing crackdown nationwide by government agencies against companies and individuals offering purported COVID-19 treatments, cures and vaccines.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) emailed warning letters this month to a plethora of such companies, including Absolute Health Clinic in Olympia, for claiming on its website that high-dose vitamin C and D therapies could “have significant impact’’ on the coronavirus, while stem cells used in other treatments “have been researched and studied in helping in the healing process of COVID-19.’’
The clinic was given 48 hours to remove the wording, or face a possible court injunction and order to repay customers.
“It is unlawful …,” the letter states, “to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made.’’
The clinic’s owner, Dr. Matthew Martinez, lives in Hawaii and said in a phone interview Tuesday he has six clinics nationwide and assured the FTC: “I’m willing to comply with anything. I don’t want any misinformation out there.”
The clinic’s website no longer appears to contain COVID-19 claims. Martinez declined to say whether he’d ordered the language removed, adding his local business manager handles such matters.
Martinez said he thinks the FTC is doing “a great job” going after companies that try to mislead consumers.
But in a Facebook Live post Friday, Martinez railed against vaccines as a COVID-19 solution and issued a “call to arms” for like-minded natural medicine proponents to take a cue from President Donald Trump in wondering about ultraviolet light as a possible coronavirus treatment. Martinez was quick to note that a “UV blue light” therapy offered by a company he owns — in which patients sit in an octagon-shaped “Blu Room” — is just the type of treatment the president wants explored.
“It’s so nice to hear today that there are other ways that we can combat this virus,’’ Martinez said in the post, adding that his company will soon offer a home version of its UV light treatment with “some virus-killing, some pathogen-killing’’ benefits.
Martinez’s company uses softer UVB light and not the more dangerous UVC light — which scientists say can effectively kill viruses but would threaten human health if used on COVID-19 patients. Trump has been roundly criticized by the scientific and medical communities for not emphasizing that distinction when talking about UV as a possible COVID-19 remedy during a White House press briefing last week.
When pressed, Martinez agreed the UVB light used by his company won’t stop the coronavirus. “That’s no cure for anything and we make that statement very, very readily,” he said. “It’s like the sunlight — it’s not a cure. You can get some vitamin D for it, but it’s not a cure for anything.”
Martinez has butted heads with government agencies before.
He surrendered his chiropractor’s license in June 2016 amid allegations by the Washington State Department of Health that he was sexually involved with patients and told another patient his multiple sclerosis could be cured by drinking breast milk.
In 2013, the state’s Chiropractic Quality Assurance Commission ordered that Martinez be monitored for a period of two years and pay a $1,000 fine after being accused of improperly charging a client’s insurance and misrepresenting his status as a licensed massage practitioner in the state.
The FBI issued a warning two weeks ago to beware of fake treatments, cures or vaccines, as well as unsolicited offers of COVID-19 tests: “When an approved treatment or cure becomes available, the first time you hear about it will not be through an email, telephone call, online advertisement, or unsolicited in-person sales pitch from a stranger.’’
Last week, the FBI raided a Detroit-area medical spa providing high doses of vitamin C therapy to COVID-19 patients; its owner, Dr. Charles Mok, has been charged with health care fraud. In San Diego, Dr. Jennings Ryan Staley, 44, director of the Skinny Beach medical spa, is facing federal fraud charges for allegedly telling patients the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was a “magic bullet” that “cures” COVID-19.
A federal court issued an injunction blocking the Florida-based, nonreligious Genesis II Church of Health and Healing from distributing a “Miracle Mineral Solution” akin to household bleach as a coronavirus cure or treatment. And the Food and Drug Administration has told several cannabis companies to stop claiming their products can prevent coronavirus by reducing inflammation.
The FTC’s warning letters have gone to health clinics, supplement makers and multilevel marketing firms promoting unregulated and unproven COVID-19 treatments and cures.
Those receiving letters include a Minnesota company touting a soap-shaped piece of copper users were supposed to rub on their hands without water, claiming it was more effective “than any other surface tested at deactivating (killing)” COVID-19. A Houston company received a warning letter for marketing a drink it claimed could fight the coronavirus by strengthening the body’s immune system.
Richard Cleland, an assistant director in the FTC’s advertising practices division who signed the letter to Absolute Health, said he couldn’t comment on whether the clinic complied, citing agency rules prohibiting him from discussing specific companies. Cleland did say response to the letter campaign has been “positive,’’ though the agency has had to follow up with some companies before they complied fully.
He reiterated: “We are prepared to follow up with enforcement, as appropriate, in cases of noncompliance.’’
When Stine, 55, launched North Coast Biologics in 2008, it was lauded for eschewing venture capital financing and a technique that sought to make cancer-fighting treatments through an attempt to isolate antibodies.
Stine referenced his background in his Facebook post, while also writing: “No government or corporation is ever going to protect us. We are the ones who have to look out for each other.”
In an interview Tuesday, Ferguson said Stine’s background as a scientist poses a particular problem.
“I would say anytime someone has the veneer of a professional, a trusted source, a doctor, a scientist, that raises my concern that Washingtonians may think this is a solution to the challenge they’re facing right now,” Ferguson said. “It makes them more ‘credible’ to an unsuspecting Washingtonian, who’ll say ‘Hey, this guy says they’re a scientist, or a doctor — I trust that type of person.’ ”
Ferguson said Stine hadn’t contacted his office by midafternoon Tuesday and he would seek legal action — including a possible court injunction — if Stine doesn’t respond. He said his office is investigating at least seven other Washington companies making similar claims.
“It’s hard to overstate how vulnerable people are — it’s a desperate time,” Ferguson said. “People are scared. And when people are in a situation like that, it’s easy to make a bad decision. And to reach out for a ‘cure’ or ‘solution.’ So, I take this extremely seriously.”
CORRECTION: An early version of this story gave Johnny Stine’s age as 54. He is 55.