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When America needs another Dr. Jonas Salk on coronavirus, Trump finds another Theranos

Hard to believe now, but in the late 1950s arguably the most admired man on Earth was a bespectacled, lab-coat wearing medical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Jonas Salk. His fame was well-deserved – Salk developed the main vaccine for the crippling illness polio – yet his epic discovery did not come with vast riches.

Some experts say his vaccine was worth as much as $7 billion, but Salk never sought a patent for it. One reason for his reluctance: The work was heavily funded by donations, including an estimated 5 billion dimes collected by kids. "Well, the people, I would say,” Salk answered famously when the iconic CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow asked who owned the vaccine. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

The late Dr. Salk probably wouldn’t have lasted a week at one of today’s go-go investor-driver pharmaceutical research firms like U.S.-based Moderna, which may or may not be leading the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine but is definitely the world leader in blowing its own horn — and cashing in.

Moderna has never successfully marketed a product since it launched in 2010, but that hasn’t stopped the high-flying public company from winning the ear of President Trump, who pledged them $483 million in taxpayer dollars after a “Shark Tank”-like pitch from its CEO, or Wall Street traders who sent the Dow nearly 1,000 points higher on a press release that actual medical experts called “premature.” Even as new investors raced in, two Moderna executives – its CFO and chief medical officer – dumped shares, netting $30 million.

Pandemic profiteers aren’t normally my beat, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Trump, top advisers like his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and how their weird ways of magical thinking, and distrust of government and scientific experts in favor of quackery and “I-know-a-guy” tips from their billionaire pals at Mar-a-Lago, has made a lethal mess of the COVID-19 response.

The president — who at a critical moment told America the coronavirus will “disappear” — has also obsessively touted and even started taking an unproven and highly risky drug, hydroxychloroquine, after controversial entrepreneur Elon Musk and others with dubious medical qualifications began touting it on Trump’s (formerly?) favorite channel, Fox News.

At the same time, Kushner – handed a key role in the COVID-19 response – reportedly spent much of his time talking to volunteers from high-priced consulting or venture capital firms with zero experience in pandemics — ignoring decades of government agency expertise all around him. Trump and Kushner seem to have taken the grossest sins of late-stage capitalism – thinking those in public service are misguided do-gooder saps, while get-rich-quick billionaires can solve society’s problems – and made things much worse. As Trumps do.

With a coronavirus vaccine, Trump has embraced the magical thinking of the Moderna execs who pitched him in the Oval Office as he also encourages America to re-open for business — even as his ex-Food and Drug Administration head and other government science leaders say the pandemic is not under control. Even worse, the firm inspiring Trump’s vaccine visions has been called out by journalists who actually follow these things as a nearly identical twin to Theranos, the Elizabeth Holmes-led medical-testing start-up whose ultimate scamminess and downfall has sparked movies, books and podcasts.

Four years ago, the highly regarded Stat News launched the Moderna-Theranos comparisons with a piece uncovering Moderna’s extreme secrecy, the financial orientation of its leadership, a toxic work environment driving away top scientists, and its success at wooing Wall Street while not curing any diseases. Today, Stat News and others have thrown serious cold water on Moderna’s newest press release (i.e., not a peer-reviewed study). If a vaccine comes, it will more likely come from other players – many working in China or the UK – who will likely conduct the kind of testing that makes a December 2020 target not just unreasonable, but insane.

One can’t help but look at this and see the disturbing ways America has changed since 1955 – faith in medical quackery and pyramid schemes over patience and expertise, the moral void of the stock market over bioethics. And it’s not just the man in the Oval Office but the millions of Americans who enthusiastically put him there. Dr. Jonas Salk must be spinning in his grave.