As government officials warn concerned public about coronavirus scams, California company faces scrutiny by members of Congress and the Los Angeles attorney for selling COVID test kits- 19 which she said could be used “at home or at the bedside.” “
The Food and Drug Administration has unequivocally stated that it has not authorized “no test available for purchase to test yourself at home for COVID-19”. However, in late March, Wellness Matrix Group, a company based in Huntington Beach, California, offered such a test for $ 49.95. “These tests,” the company promised customers, “are legitimate and have been verified and approved by the United States Food & Drug Association.[[[[sic]. “
Several customers who ordered the tests now say they never received them and tried to cancel their payments.
The company has since been brought to the attention of the authorities. On March 30, after NPR asked for comments on the Wellness Matrix Group products, investigators from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent the company a letter asking for information about its alleged home test. Investigators also asked about a $ 500 disinfectant that the company says “kills the crown on contact.”
Meanwhile, Los Angeles attorney Mike Feuer said his office had sent a cease and desist notice to the company regarding its test sales.
Investigators’ requests coincided with several changes to the websites where the tests were sold by the company. A graphic indicating that the product was “approved” by the FDA has become “registered” by the FDA. A reference to “in the privacy of your own home” tests has been removed, as has a line that says “Home Kit”. NPR has documented these changes on the archive.is platform.
A site suddenly stopped working on March 27, only to return on March 30 to a different address. Finally, on March 31, the company appeared to stop offering products for sale and said in a statement that it “always has our sole intention” to sell the test “as a point of service system”, c is intended for health care. suppliers.
The company also offered to “provide telemedicine services” to customers who still wanted to receive the tests, “so that they can use the test appropriately as directed.” For those who did not, the site offered an “immediate refund” to any customer who wanted one.
In an interview, David Saltrelli, vice president of marketing for the Wellness Matrix Group, emphasized that the company’s tests are actually real and FDA approved.
In a statement, an FDA spokesperson reiterated that the agency “did not approve a home test, whether or not a health care provider guides them”.
Los Angeles couple Charles and Chelsey Goodan say they learned about the Wellness Matrix Group test from a friend.
At the time, Chelsey Goodan said that she had started to feel sick and feared that she would have contracted COVID-19.
“I felt like I smoked a pack of cigarettes in my chest,” she said. “I was just panicking. “
Charles Goodan says he has relatives in the mid-1970s nearby who are at higher risk of a pandemic.
Given the shortage of testing nationwide, Chelsey Goodan said, “We were afraid we wouldn’t have access to the tests. “
So when the two received an email about the test, they decided to buy six, just in case. With shipping and taxes, they spent a total of $ 333.70.
Other friends also paid money.
Max Sloves bought a kit because he wanted to visit his mother for his 84th birthday. She is bedridden and in palliative care for Alzheimer’s disease.
“She’s not in a state where I can do FaceTime with her and even make her react at all,” says Sloves. “The ability to put your hand on someone’s shoulder right now in their condition is really significant. “
But Sloves says he didn’t think he was safe to visit his mother unless he was certain he didn’t have the virus.
“I just thought it wouldn’t be responsible, ethical [or] sure to be with her without having some degree of certainty that I’m not contagious, “says Sloves.
Anna Galle and her husband, PJ Sodaski, spent $ 246 on four tests. They were particularly concerned about the shortage of tests nationwide because Galle is pregnant.
Sodaski, Galle, Sloves and the Goodans all say that they received receipts for their purchases but never received messages with shipping information. Now, more than 10 days after ordering, they say they still haven’t received any real tests.
In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wellness Matrix Group describes itself as a start-up, with “plans to combine the latest innovations in artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality ( AR), in medical technology (MedTech) and clinical research. ”
After unsuccessful attempts to contact representatives of the company and its CEO, Barry Migliorini, NPR was able to reach Brian J. Esposito, a New Jersey man who describes himself as an outside consultant for the Wellness Matrix Group.
“It is with great pleasure that I am announcing the rollout of coronavirus home test kits,” Esposito wrote on March 23 in a tweet since deleted.
Esposito agreed to set up a record telephone interview with himself and Saltrelli, the company’s vice president of marketing.
When asked if he had any experience in the healthcare industry, Saltrelli replied, “No, other than that, I have used it. Saltrelli said his main experience was in marketing. Esposito said his experience in health care comes mainly from his work in the “beauty and personal care space”.
With the growing coronavirus pandemic, said Saltrelli, the company had been working “for several months” to find and distribute a suitable home test. “It made sense,” said Saltrelli, “to offer it as a test that people could buy from us and take the test at home. “
“The most important thing was to get the FDA – you have to send it there,” said Saltrelli. “Obviously, you have to make sure of the accuracy of the test. You just can’t get a test out of nowhere. “
Saltrelli said the company had indeed obtained FDA approval, but said “you should ask the lawyers” for details on the testing and approval process. He could not answer questions about why the FDA explicitly states that it has not approved any home tests.
“I don’t know how to answer your question, okay,” said Saltrelli. “Other than that, it was normal. “
He also couldn’t explain why one of the company’s websites included an FDA registration form for a product called “CoronaCide”. Not only did this product not have FDA approval for home use, but a representative for the Utah-based company said it had no affiliation with the Wellness Matrix Group.
When asked about the information on the website related to the FDA registration for CoronaCide, Saltrelli said, “I’m not familiar.”
As for the manufacturer of the kits, Saltrelli said, “We are not going to give you the exact source,” adding, “Right now, we are buying them from Hong Kong. “
He said he was not aware of another claim on the website that the tests were carried out by a biotechnology company in mainland China, Hangzhou Biotest Biotech Co.
Saltrelli also refused to answer questions about sales via the website.
“Obviously there is a huge demand,” said Saltrelli. “We just need to make sure we have enough to cover it. “
Speaking about his own role in the business, Esposito said, “My job is to get the products out there and get them into the hands of as many people as possible and hopefully help people. “
Because the interview left questions about the company’s testing and operations, NPR called the Wellness Matrix Group’s main phone number again for further comments. The respondent declined to name, complained about a “dirty reporter” and hung up.
Questions about past work
Lawsuits against Saltrelli and another figure in the Wellness Matrix group, George Todt, raise additional questions about the company.
In the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission sued Saltrelli and others in federal court, alleging that they “deceptively marketed travel packages to consumers through a network of telephone sales outlets and allegedly assisted and encouraged telemarketers to mislead consumers. “
According to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for another Saltrelli company, the FTC has obtained a permanent injunction against Saltrelli, banning him for life from certain business practices related to telemarketing and the travel industry.
Saltrelli – yesterday and today – denied any wrongdoing. He said the FTC case should not reflect his work on coronavirus testing.
“The two have nothing to do with each other,” said Saltrelli. “Everyone, including every member of Congress, every politician, certainly did the exact same thing at some point. “
NPR reached Todt on Twitter, where he describes himself as a “father, meditating visionary, creating Internet III”. On March 19, he tweeted, “Home test kits now!” Fda approved. “
Todt has also registered the domain name www.cs-28.com, one of the sites selling test kits, according to GoDaddy web domain registrar.
He posted a video promoting a “virucidal” coronavirus destroyer from the Wellness Matrix Group with which you could “build a force field around your event or even spray your whole city.” The Los Angeles city attorney and members of Congress have requested information about these disinfectants.
Extract from Coronastop28 ad
In an email to NPR, Todt wrote that he was doing “business development” for the Wellness Matrix Group.
When asked a series of questions about the test kits by email, Todt replied that he was willing to address them only in a live TV or radio interview.
“I’m not interested in you twisting yourself and taking me out of context,” he wrote. He refused to answer questions posed by NPR. However, he sent an email saying, “Everyone has the right to test themselves. [and] you stop that. “
In 2005, Todt was sued by the SEC. The commission alleged that Todt “orchestrated two fraudulent schemes” in which he disseminated “false and misleading information” to artificially inflate the stock prices of a company – a practice commonly known as “pump and dump” – and also issued “unregistered securities” for a penny. joint stock companies. A federal court ordered that Todt be “permanently barred from participating in any penny stock offer”.
In a letter to NPR regarding this story, Hardy L. Thomas, a lawyer representing Todt, wrote that his client “did not and does not intend to promote penny stocks or any other security in the markets and no evidence to the contrary exists. “
“He really feels so morally corrupt”
In any public health crisis, experts say scams are common.
“Whenever we have diseases or conditions that lack good treatment, we tend to see companies come out of the wood market and exploit people’s hopes to treat these conditions,” says Patricia Zettler, law professor at Ohio State University and former deputy chief counsel at the FDA.
When the FDA finds a problem with claims from a more established company, the agency will usually start by sending a warning letter.
“If a company is not a recurring FDA player and is a company selling snake oil, the warning letters may be less effective,” said Zettler.
The Trump administration has promised to “aggressively” prosecute fraudulent pandemic schemes.
The FDA has the capacity to initiate civil and even criminal proceedings against companies that break the law, says Zettler. To date, the FDA has not publicly announced any action against the Wellness Matrix Group.
LA lawyer Feuer said his office had set a deadline on April 2 for receiving more information from the Wellness Matrix Group. The company’s responses, he said, will help determine whether his office will take legal action.
Several Wellness Matrix Group customers say they are embarrassed and fooled by the company.
“I really feel taken advantage of,” says Chelsey Goodan. “He really feels so morally corrupt that anyone would take advantage of people right now. “
Because he did not receive a test, Sloves was unable to visit his mother at her 84th birthday.
“To think that someone would tackle the anxieties and fears known to people in a time so full of uncertainty and panic,” says Sloves, “is so disgusting.”
Barbara Van Woerkom and Huo Jingnan of NPR contributed to the reporting on this story.