CA: Local doctor admits hydroxychloroquine smuggling plot

A San Diego physician pleaded guilty Friday to trying to import what he believed was hydroxychloroquine smuggled out of China, which prosecutors alleged he planned to include in COVID-19 treatment kits purported to cure the virus.

Jennings Ryan Staley, 46, who formerly operated Skinny Beach Med Spas in and around San Diego, entered a guilty plea Friday morning to a count of importation contrary to law for trying to obtain hydroxychloroquine through a Chinese supplier and lying to U.S. customs about the shipment’s contents.

The shipment was mislabeled as “yam extract,” though Staley believed it contained more than 26 pounds of hydroxychloroquine powder intended for inclusion in capsules as part of COVID-19 treatment kits he planned to sell, prosecutors said.

However, the shipment turned out to only contain baking soda, according to the U.S Attorney’s Office.

Staley remains out of custody pending his sentencing, set for Oct. 8 in San Diego federal court.

Staley was originally charged last year with marketing and selling pricey “COVID-19 treatment packs,” described as a “concierge medicine experience” priced as high as $3,995 for a family of four.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Staley’s marketing materials stated customers should “NOT BELIEVE THE REPORTS THAT HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE DOESN’T WORK!” and he told an undercover FBI agent who posed as a customer that the purported treatment was a “magic bullet” and a “miracle cure.”

When asked whether the treatment kit would cure someone infected with COVID-19, he said, “100%,” but later denied ever making the claim, prosecutors said.

He was later indicted by a grand jury in connection with the importation count, and for impersonating one of his employees in order to obtain hydroxychloroquine.

Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said, “While healthcare workers around the world selflessly labored on the frontlines of an international pandemic, this doctor used his position of trust to cash in on COVID-19 fears.”

Hydroxychloroquine has been tested on thousands of COVID-19 patients and experts say data from randomized studies has shown the drug is not effective for treating the disease — alone or with other drugs like azithromycin. These included major studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The FDA and World Health Organization also warn against its use to treat the disease.

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