How Philadelphia’s vaccination efforts fell to a startup run by a 22-year-old who took home a bag of vaccines and gave them to his friends

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In this file photo from Jan. 29, 2021, Andrei Doroshin speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Matt Rourke/AP Photo, File
  • Philly Fighting Covid, a PPE startup that pivoted to vaccine distribution, had a spectacular rise and fall. 
  • The city provided vaccines to PFC but later cut ties after finding issues in its privacy policy. 
  • The city is still soliciting vaccine partners and the event has spurred conversation about equity.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Andrei Doroshin seemed irate when he posted the statement on his company’s website on January 29. It had been a tumultuous week for the 22-year old Drexel University graduate student. 

He’d admitted – on national television – to taking a small number of coronavirus vaccines home from a clinic run by his startup, Philly Fighting Covid. The city of Philadelphia had cut ties with his company. The press attention had been relentless. 

But Doroshin was characteristically brash in the now-deleted statement.

“Today is Friday and Philly Fighting Covid should be vaccinating thousands of people,” he wrote. “Instead, I’m here forced to defend us against another example of Philly’s dirty power politics.”

He closed his remarks: “Rather than being proud that it’s a homegrown effort, some self-interested people are trying to take us down.” 

Weeks later, he told the press he was leaving the city after becoming the subject of a flurry of media coverage and an ongoing debate around the city government’s coronavirus response.

When contacted for comment for this story, Doroshin referred Insider to a press contact and declined to speak further on the record.

How Philly Fighting Covid got started

In October, Doroshin addressed staff about the organization’s plans to vaccinate the city of Philadelphia.

Standing without a mask on a rooftop in the city, he said that vaccine distribution posed the “single largest logistical challenge in the history of our species.”

Doroshin, who studied psychology and before starting Philly Fighting COVID had no public health experience, talked generally about how the startup would assist the wider effort. The meeting, which was recorded on video, was first reported by WHYY

First, he told them: “Our progress will not be measured by how much money we make … It’s going to be measured by how many lives we save.” 

He then changed gears. 

“The CDC is paying for these vaccines,” he said. “They’re going to be free. So what does that mean for us? That means we’re making 100% profit.” 

According to a former PFC employee, who asked not to be named due to concerns over potential harassment, profit never came.  

Philadelphia gave vaccines to PFC, but the company’s failure to obtain a contract for vaccine distribution, its  questionable privacy policies, and a four stolen syringes resulted in a highly public breakup.

So how did Philadelphia get here? PFC was an unlikely choice to run a city’s vaccination program. Its staff was a mix of student volunteers and medical advisors. In the spring of 2020, the group focused on manufacturing PPE. But the organization soon pivoted to testing. 

PFC was one of 19 groups provided with city funding to run test sites, according to reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer, receiving just shy of $US200,000 ($260,764). 13 groups were rejected. 

By October, when Doroshin gave his rooftop talk, the group was moving away from less-profitable testing and toward the more lucrative vaccine race.

When PFC responded to a request for proposals from the city to help run vaccine operations, the pitch worked. The Health Department, though it never signed a contract with the startup, agreed to provide thousands of vials that PFC would distribute at the city’s Convention Center, according to reporting by WHYY and Billy Penn

The former PFC employee told Insider that the cost to rent out the center was sizable, and incurred only by PFC, but it understood there to be a “verbal contract” that the city would repay the company with grant money. 

James Garrow, the communications director for the city’s Department of Public Health, said: “The Health Department has partnered with dozens of partners to distribute COVID-19 vaccine and none of them have a formal, written contract because there is no funding attached to this effort.” 

“There is no such thing as a ‘verbal contract’ with the City of Philadelphia,” Garrow added.

The mass-vaccination clinics

On January 8, Philly Fighting Covid ran its first vaccination clinic. The Philadelphia Department of Health authorized the event. It was enough of a success that the group was provided with more vaccines for the coming weeks. 

The clinic on the weekend of January 16 also seemed like a relative success, Katrina Lipinsky, a nurse who volunteered with the organization, told Insider. Everything moved smoothly overall, but Lipinsky saw some red flags. The majority of people who showed up to the clinic on the 16th seemed to not meet the eligibility group requirements, she said.

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Clarissa Cooper-Nowell (second to right) waits for 15 minutes in the observation area after receiving the coronavirus vaccine at the mass-vaccination center set up by Philly Fighting COVID at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on January 15, 2021. Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Lipinsky also said that she was not asked for proof of her nursing license in advance of the first clinic, though an email later requested that she confirm her qualifications. 

At the vaccination clinic on January 23, Lipinsky told her supervisor that she had seen Doroshin take multiple vials of vaccines off site. Lipinsky recalled that the supervisor told her it was not a problem. 

Then, reporting came out from WHYY that said PFC had changed from a nonprofit company to a for-profit corporation without informing the city. 

The revelation immediately resulted in public scrutiny, and the fallout was swift. On January 25, Philadelphia cut ties with PFC, citing the switch to for-profit status, as well as language in the company’s privacy policy that would allow it to sell patient data.

The former employee said PFC never intended to sell data and that the policy wasn’t vetted because it went up quickly in response to reporting that the organization lacked a privacy policy. They also attributed the change from classification as a nonprofit to a need for a cash infusion.

“CVS is going to make a profit, right?,” the employee said. “The amount of bills we have to pay in the next eight months are going to be immense – we can’t raise that on a nonprofit.”

The turning point

January 26 was a pivotal day for PFC. Lipinsky tweeted that she witnessed Doroshin swiping vaccine doses. 

—Katrina Lipinsky (@Katweeta) January 26, 2021

 

Two days later, Doroshin admitted in an interview with TODAY that he had removed four doses from the vaccination site and injected friends with the vaccines. He said he took the vaccines home because he didn’t want them to expire. “I stand by that decision,” he said. “I understand that I made that mistake – that is my mistake to carry for the rest of my life, but it is not the mistake of the organization.”

The District Attorney’s office had released a statement on January 26 citing WHYY and Billy Penn’s reporting. “It is concerning that reportedly Philly Fighting COVID appears to have misrepresented its role in vaccine distribution and is reported to have failed to disclose information about a for-profit operation,” DA Larry Krasner wrote.

Krasner encouraged members of the public with evidence to get in touch. Lipinsky told Insider she has given statements and interviews to the Attorney General’s office and the office of special investigations. 

A spokesperson for the DA’s office said that it doesn’t comment on open investigations, but that the office “ha[s] been contacted by a number of people with information about PFC’s activities.”

Garrow said of the Health Department’s perspective, “we hope that the public sees that while partnering with PFC was a mistake – a mistake that was ended as soon as we were made aware of the untrustworthiness – this relationship is not indicative of the overall response; with nearly 250,000 doses of vaccine successfully administered in Philadelphia, PFC was responsible for less than 3% of those doses.”

Where does Philly go from here?

The city is still soliciting proposals for vaccine providers. In a COVID-19 update posted earlier in February, the call came: “The Philadelphia Department of Public Health seeks to expand its usual network of vaccine providers by engaging agencies and organizations to build programs able to administer COVID-19 vaccine to Philadelphia residents.”

The Department of Health communications director James Garrow said that the call to third-party providers was intended to widen the city’s distribution area. “It is imperative that vaccine distribution take place at as many places, and be done by people and organizations that residents already trust, to ensure an equitable distribution.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, in the funding race for the city’s testing efforts, PFC received $US194,000 ($252,941). Groups like the African Cultural Alliance of North America – a group that the Inquirer reported requested funding to advertise and administer testing to Philadelphia’s African immigrant community – received nothing even in a city with a 40% Black population. 

The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium is working to vaccinate Black Philadelphians, who, the Inquirer reported, account for around 20% of those who’ve received vaccines. The most recent “vax-a-thon” by the Consortium vaccinated 4,000 Philadelphians

Garrow said that the city has vaccinated everyone who received their first dose at a PFC-affiliated clinic. The city itself has run vaccination sites, and the Inquirer reported that FEMA would be introducing a mass clinic starting in March to vaccinate at a much higher capacity. 

In the wake of the scandal, the city’s deputy health commissioner, Dr. Caroline Johnson, resigned after the Inquirer reported based on records that it had obtained that she gave preferential treatment in the request for proposal process.

It seems that Philadelphia has managed to bounce back from the PFC issues, but many people are questioning how this situation happened in the first place. WHYY reported that the City Council is holding hearings, and that many Council members alleged that racism was a factor in the city deciding to work with the primarily-white group. Lipinsky agreed.

“Andrei [Doroshin], as a privileged white male who looks good in a suit,” Lipinsky said, “was perceived by the city as trustworthy.”

Garrow, on behalf of the Health Department, responded that “the Black Doctor’s COVID-19 Consortium …received more than seven times the funding that Philly Fighting COVID received.” 

He continued: “The Health Department is committed to delivering COVID-19 vaccine according to three guiding principles: do it fast, do it in a way that will save the most lives, and do it equitably.”

Philly Fighting Covid seemed to hit at least the first of those principles. As Doroshin wrote in his since-deleted statement, “Has it been perfect? Hell no, but we have no time for  that.” 

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Andrei Doroshin speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Matt Rourke/AP Photo

By late January, Doroshin had asked everyone on staff to resign, according to WHYY. The staff page was taken down from the group’s website. Eventually, Doroshin’s statement was too. 

On January 29, he held a press conference in the lobby of his apartment building saying that PFC had been a victim of “dirty power politics.” When a reporter from NBC10 pressed him to clarify what that meant, he would not.

“I’m a freaking grad student,” a maskless Doroshin said, citing the number of vaccines PFC had provided. In a video from Fox29, he maintained that the for-profit switch was necessary to start taking on investors.

At the end of the press conference, Doroshin told reporters he was leaving town, and that he had been receiving death threats. In the wake of scrutiny from the media and the city, Doroshin was fairly quiet until late February, when he sent an email to PFC investors that was obtained by WHYY.

In the email Doroshin said that “minor administrative decisions” resulted in unspecified competitors discrediting PFC. Doroshin said that he would concentrate on “money owed” and rehabilitating his and the organization’s “good names.” 

“There is an apology,” Doroshin wrote in the email. He didn’t say what for.