Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz has financial ties to at least two pharmaceutical companies that supply hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that he has floated as a possible Covid-19 treatment.
Oz, a physician and veteran television show host who is facing Democrat John Fetterman in the race for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, owns along with his wife at least $615,000 in shares of Thermo Fisher Scientific, according to his financial disclosure. Thermo Fisher Scientific’s website lists hydroxychloroquine sulfate as one of its available products. It is unclear when Oz and his wife bought the stock, or whether they owned it as Oz promoted hydroxychloroquine as a Covid treatment early in the pandemic.
Oz and his wife also own between $15,001 and $50,000 in McKesson Corporation stock, according to the disclosure. The company labels and distributes hydroxychloroquine sulfate, according to the FDA. It is also unclear when they bought McKesson stock.
Hydroxychloroquine sulfate is the anti-malaria drug commonly known as hydroxychloroquine, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Doctors around the country, in part boosted by endorsements from former President Donald Trump and conservative media figures, have offered the medication to patients as a Covid treatment despite its questionable efficacy against the virus.
Oz’s financial ties to a producer and distributor of the drug, and his promotion of it as a potential Covid treatment, raise questions about what he stood to gain from its wider use during the pandemic. If he wins the Senate election, he could also face conflicts of interest as Congress grapples with a still evolving coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement responding to CNBC questions about Oz’s relationships with companies that make or distribute hydroxychloroquine, including when he and his wife bought the Thermo Fisher Scientific stock, Oz campaign spokeswoman Brittany Yanick did not address the candidate’s financial holdings.
“At the outset of the pandemic, Dr. Mehmet Oz spoke with health experts worldwide who were seeing hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as viable treatment options for desperately ill COVID patients. He offered to fund the clinical trial at Columbia University,” she said.
The FDA has approved hydroxychloroquine to fight malaria, but warned it has “not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19.”
Oz took bold steps early in the pandemic to promote its usage as a treatment. He urged Trump administration officials in 2020 to back a study he aimed to fund at the Columbia University Medical Center about the effect of hydroxychloroquine on Covid-19 patients, according to emails obtained and released by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis.
Oz also has ties to third company that says it divested hydroxychloroquine from their US portfolio.
Sanofi, which is headquartered in France and previously made hydroxychloroquine, for years supported Oz’s nonprofit, HealthCorps, according to the group’s annual disclosure reports. Between 2009 and 2018, Sanofi was listed as either a sponsor or in-kind supporter of the Oz-funded group, which promotes itself as aiming to help teens with their health and wellness. In 2013, Sanofi is listed as one of the group’s “school sponsors.” HealthCorps’ website says a school sponsor must donate $100,000 to qualify.
Sanofi announced in April 2020 that it would donate 100 million doses of hydroxychloroquine to 50 countries around the world as studies assessed the drug’s efficacy in treating Covid-19.
A spokesman for Sanofi told CNBC that the company has no involvement with Oz’s comments about Covid-19 or hydroxychloroquine. He explained that Sanofi divested hydroxychloroquine from its US portfolio in 2013 and investigated the use of the drug at the start of the Covid pandemic as a possible way to fight the virus. Once it was deemed ineffective against Covid-19, the company’s work on it ceased.
The spokesman also explained that the company’s last financial contribution to HealthCorps came in 2011. The company representative later corrected himself in a follow up email to CNBC after publication of this story and said that 2013, which, in fact, the last year Sanofi gave a financial donation to Health Corps.
Oz’s ties to companies that would benefit from wider use of hydroxychloroquine could pose issues for the Republican if he wins the Senate seat. Kedric Payne, an ethics attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, told CNBC in an email that Oz could choose to divest from the companies if he were to defeat Fetterman in November.
“He may be in for a rude awakening if elected because ethics rules could bar him from this activity. Senators cannot use their positions to promote any goods or services that financially benefit them,” Payne said. “Oz could voluntarily divest the stock if elected or stop promoting anything tied to his stock.”
A spokesman for Thermo Fisher Scientific declined to comment. A representative for McKesson did not return a request for comment before publication.
Since he launched his campaign late last year, Oz has downplayed warnings by the FDA and other experts against using hydroxychloroquine as a Covid treatment. He suggested political animus against Trump, who endorsed the drug as a treatment and Oz in the Senate election, motivated criticism of the drug as a means to fight Covid.
“Now, let me just say this real quick, I really don’t know if it works or not, we still to this day had not been able to prove if it [hydroxychloroquine] works or not, which is a shame, because we should have known by now if a cheap 70-year-old drug used by a billion people works or not,” Oz said at a campaign rally earlier this year. “But we don’ t, which is a problem by itself. However, I mentioned it and then President Trump mentioned it in a press conference, and all of a sudden the entire world hated hydroxychloroquine without testing it, without knowing about it.”
Before he launched his campaign, Oz more explicitly championed hydroxychloroquine. During a Fox News interview in March 2020 at the height of the pandemic, Oz said that “hydroxychloroquine plays a role” in fighting the virus. A graphic on screen while Oz was being interviewed called the anti-malaria drug “promising” as a Covid-19 treatment option.
Oz also sought the White House’s help in kickstarting the hydroxychloroquine study he hoped to fund at Columbia, where he was once vice chair of the surgery department. He has said since the study never got off the ground.
The Pennsylvania candidate’s communications with White House officials were released by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis last month. In a March 2020 email to former Trump White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, Oz said he would recruit patients and pay for the hydroxychloroquine trial himself.
Also in March 2020, Oz emailed Trump’s son in law and advisor Jared Kushner that “we must make completion of this study a national priority and insist on immediate enrollment,” according to the correspondence obtained and made public by the House committee. Kushner responded to Oz on the same day, “What do you recommend to speed it up?”
The New York Post reports that Oz spent $8,800 at that time on hydroxychloroquine tablets for the study and offered to spend $250,000.
Oz, while campaigning for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat, blamed then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for holding the study after he effectively banned the anti-malaria drug as a Covid treatment.
Oz’s financial ties could become a bigger issue for him if he wins the Pennsylvania race, one of a handful of contests that will decide which party controls the Senate next year. A Real Clear Politics polling average shows Fetterman leading Oz by almost 7 percentage points.
Stock ownership in Congress is facing increased scrutiny. Some lawmakers have proposed a ban on individual stock trades in Congress, which would require lawmakers to put assets in a blind trust or divest entirely.
Business Insider has identified at least 71 lawmakers who have violated the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or STOCK Act. The law aims to stop members of Congress from trading stocks off of insider information gained from their work as lawmakers.
However, members of Congress have broadly faced few repercussions for lucrative stock trades.