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The US government awarded a North Carolina pharmaceutical company $750,000 to do research on antimalarial drugs days after President Donald Trump praised the medicines as a possible treatment for COVID-19.
Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD) is supposed to conduct a one-month study on the use of "hydrochloroquine and chloroquine in patients with coronavirus disease (COVID-19), positive for SARS-COV-2 virus exposure, or pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxis,” according to federal contracting records obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine attracted attention earlier this month after a French study involving 42 COVID-19 patients indicated that a small number treated with the drugs — which were developed for use against malaria, but also taken by patients with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis — showed positive results.
At a White House press conference three days after the French study appeared, Trump said “we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.” Two days later, the president tweeted that a combination of chloroquine and another drug “have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changes in the history of medicine.”
The Food and Drug Administration urged caution, however, and said officials are still trying “to determine whether it can be used to treat patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 to potentially reduce the duration of symptoms, as well as viral shedding, which can help prevent the spread of disease.” The World Health Organization agreed that further tests should be conducted, but many scientists criticized Trump’s comments as being overzealous and said the French study was flawed.
Nevertheless, demand for the drugs skyrocketed, leading to a shortage for patients who were taking it for other conditions. The drugs drew widespread exposure from Fox News and Elon Musk.
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The chloroquine study is one of many emergency contracts related to the coronavirus outbreak struck by the US government, which has marshaled some of its enormous purchasing power to enter into similar agreements for hospital beds, protective equipment, and other supplies. Federal contracting data show that 16 agencies have spent more than $250 million on COVID-19 measures since January.
PPD has until April 21 to finish its work, according to the terms of the purchase order. Information about the agreement was posted on a website that lists government contracts. BuzzFeed News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy of it. The deal was first reported by the Daily Beast. [UPDATE: A copy of the contract was turned over to BuzzFeed News by HHS on Jan. 24, 2022.]
Within the Department of Health and Human Services, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response has awarded 25 contracts worth more than $210 million since January.
The largest of those went to 3M to produce N95 masks. That $173 million contract runs until October 2021. Rapid Deployment Inc., an Alabama emergency response company, received $28 million for “support services.”
Founded in 1985, PPD is now a global giant with 23,000 employees and offices in 46 countries. The company did not respond to detailed messages seeking comment about its coronavirus research, nor did officials from HHS.
According to the company’s website, it is currently working on about 80 active projects for the Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and other federal agencies. Under its contract with BARDA, PPD “supports the design and conduct of clinical studies to develop medical countermeasures to protect against bioterrorism, pandemic influenza and other public health emergencies.”
Since 2000, PPD has been awarded more than $700 million in government contracts. The company has also performed work for the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and the Agency for International Development.
On Jan. 27, PPD announced it was going public. In its first earnings call with investors on March 5, three weeks before its arrangement with HHS, the chair and chief executive, David Simmons, discussed how the pandemic had affected business in China and what PPD was doing to contain the spread of the virus. The outbreak had impacted “the ability of our employees to visit hospitals and other clinical trial sites to conduct monitoring visits,” its earnings report said.
This post has been updated to include a copy of the contract that the Department of Health & Human Services disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by BuzzFeed News.