In March and April of 2020, as the coronavirus spread and people isolated in their homes, a doctor in San Diego boasted that he had his hands on a “miracle cure,” according to prosecutors — hydroxychloroquine.
In mass-marketing emails from his business, Skinny Beach Med Spa, Jennings Ryan Staley said the drug was included in his coronavirus “treatment kits,” despite the medication becoming increasingly scarce. But Staley had a way of getting it, he later told an undercover federal agent. He planned to smuggle in a barrel of hydroxychloroquine powder with the help of a Chinese supplier, prosecutors said.
Staley was sentenced last week to 30 days in prison and a year of home confinement for the scheme. He pleaded guilty last year.
“At the height of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, this doctor sought to profit from patients’ fears,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said in a news release. “He abused his position of trust and undermined the integrity of the entire medical profession.”
Staley’s attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Monday.
Hydroxychloroquine is often prescribed to people with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and is used to treat malaria. The drug was repeatedly touted by President Donald Trump, starting in the early days of the pandemic, as a “game changer.” Trump’s endorsement caused demand for the drug to spike, leading to shortages and ultimately affecting those who needed it for non-COVID health problems. Studies later found that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment for COVID and did not prevent people from becoming sick.
According to prosecutors, federal agents began looking into Staley after concerned customers alerted the FBI to the marketing emails from Skinny Beach Med Spa. The business advertised “world-class beauty innovations at affordable prices,” court documents show, and offered services including Botox, fat transfer, hair removal and tattoo removal.
The COVID treatment kit came with a 30-day “concierge medical experience,” intravenous drips, access to medical hyperbaric oxygen (at an extra fee), and prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and anti-anxiety medications, records show.
In late March 2020, an undercover agent responded to one of the emails and inquired about the treatment kit, investigators said. When Staley and the agent spoke on the phone soon after, the doctor falsely claimed that hydroxychloroquine was a “magic bullet” and an “amazing cure” that would keep someone immune from COVID for at least six weeks, according to court records.
“It’s preventive and curative,” Staley said to the undercover agent, court documents show. “It’s hard to believe, it’s almost too good to be true. But it’s a remarkable clinical phenomenon.”
He added that the virus “literally disappears in hours” after a person takes the drug.
When asked by the agent whether the medication was a “guaranteed” cure for COVID, Staley said yes but qualified that “there’s always exceptions” and “there are no guarantees in life,” court records show.
During the call, Staley also told the agent how he was sourcing the hydroxychloroquine. He said that he “got the last tank of hydroxychloroquine smuggled out of China,” records show, and that he “tricked customs” by labeling the barrel as “sweet potato extract.” He added that the powder was enough to make 8,000 doses in gelatin capsules.
Staley later offered the agent prescriptions for generic versions of Viagra and Xanax, a federally controlled substance, despite never asking him “any medical questions,” prosecutors said. The agent ordered six kits — enough for himself and five family members — for $4,000, according to court documents.
Staley was charged in mid-April 2020 and pleaded guilty in July 2021. As part of his plea agreement, Staley also admitted to posing as one of his employees to fill a prescription for hydroxychloroquine to then use it in his kits, prosecutors said. And he agreed to accusations that he lied to federal agents during the investigation.
“Dr. Staley offered a ‘magic bullet’ — a guaranteed cure for COVID-19 to people gripped in fear during a global pandemic,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner said in a news release when Staley pleaded guilty. “Today, Dr. Staley admitted it was all a lie as part of a scam to make a quick buck.”
As part of his sentencing on Friday, Staley was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and to give back the $4,000 the federal agent paid for his family’s kit. He also had to hand over “more than 4,500 tablets of various pharmaceutical drugs, multiple bags of empty pill capsules, and a manual capsule-filling machine,” prosecutors said.
According to records from the medical board of California, Staley’s license has been temporarily suspended by a court order.