SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State Auditor John Dougall confirmed Friday his office is reviewing the state’s $800,000 purchase of anti-malarial drugs — a controversial move that raised red flags from pharmacists and medical professionals, and has since been refunded.
“Yes, we’re looking into it,” Dougall told the Deseret News when asked if his office is reviewing the purchase, adding that he is also reviewing “other COVID-19-related emergency purchases.”
Emails obtained by the Deseret News on Friday also show that state budgeting officials moved to approve the purchase under pressure from Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, and state leaders including Senate President Stuart Adams, who were supportive of acting quickly to obtain and facilitate use of the drugs.
That move came despite objections from state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, the emails show, and other medical professionals who expressed concerns about lack of evidence of the drugs’ benefits for COVID-19 treatment.
Since March 24, 2020, the state’s purchasing department has issued over 300 purchase orders under emergency protocols for about $70 million in supplies for the state’s response amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to governor’s office. Some of those orders have been canceled, the office said, as a result of product failure, failure to deliver or state officials determining the purchases were no longer needed.
Under the state’s COVID-19 emergency declarations, the state’s purchasing director can authorize emergency purchases without using standard competitive bidding processes. Under that policy, currently in effect through May 31, goods and services directly related to the state’s COVID-19 response are exempted from competitive solicitation requirements, but “agencies are encouraged to use as much competition as is practicable,” according to the state’s website.
Dougall and Chris Hughes, director of the Division of Purchasing and General Services, have “already talked about sitting down and taking a look at what actions were taken during this emergency status,” Dougall said. “It’s kind of to be expected in this kind of deviation from normal protocols.”
He said they will look at how the tens of millions of dollars have been spent to fight COVID-19, and they will assess whether or not they need to make changes “if we have this condition in the future.”
After the state’s $800,000 purchase of 20,000 medication packs of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine came to light, questions have swirled around the deal, including who authorized it and why it took weeks for the transaction to become public knowledge.
Lawmakers with medical backgrounds expressed concerns about purchasing an “unproven” drug the Food and Drug Administration has since cautioned against using outside hospitals or clinical trials. And groups including Alliance for a Better Utah have called the purchase a “closed-door sweetheart deal” between state leaders and the Utah pharmacy that sold the drugs, Meds in Motion.