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In our opinion: Utahns deserve answers for $800K anti-malarial drug purchase

This Monday, April 6, 2020, file photo shows an arrangement of Hydroxychloroquine pills in Las Vegas. At least 13 states have obtained a total of more than 10 million doses of malaria drugs to treat COVID-19 patients despite warnings from doctors that more tests are needed before the medications that President Trump once fiercely promoted should be used to help people with the coronavirus.
Associated Press

If success has a thousand fathers, failure seems to breed an inability to recall. That seems to be the case regarding scrutiny of an $800,000 state purchase of anti-malarial drugs — drugs whose effectiveness in the fight against the novel coronavirus is unproven.

Emails the Deseret News obtained show the governor’s director of management and budget, Kristen Cox, collaborated with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, on the day of the purchase. The governor has said he didn’t know about this, despite his office staff being copied on emails about the purchase proposals.

Dr. Joseph Miner, the executive director of the Utah Department of Health, appeared to be pushing for the purchase. But Miner stepped away for personal health reasons, and his acting successor, Gen. Jeff Burton, said he doesn’t recall the purchase, despite emails seeming to show he was aware. He described the daily onslaught of information as “catching 90 mph fastballs without a glove.”

The “fog of war,” seems to be a common thread here. The COVID-19 pandemic has moved quickly, and public officials have been keen to find equally quick solutions. Erring on the side of hope is no vice. We note that the money has since been refunded to the state.

Even so, the purchase came in spite of objections from Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, and other professionals, whose expertise in this case was ignored. Lawmakers were similarly dismissive of warnings from the few members of their ranks with medical expertise as they approved separate appropriations for purchases of the drugs. And questions have been raised about the supplier of the drugs, a Utah pharmacy called Meds in Motion.

We’re glad Utah State Auditor John Dougall, an independently elected official, is reviewing all this. The governor was quick to say his office had done an internal review and found no wrongdoing, but the people of Utah deserve a thorough, independent and transparent look at what happened.

The questions don’t involve only the $800,000, which was intended to purchase about 20,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. Since March 24, the state has spent about $70 million in COVID-19-related purchases under emergency protocols.

Pandemics are extraordinary and rare events that threaten public health and safety. They require quick action, which justifies emergency protocols allowing purchases without competitive bids or normal scrutiny.

But there must be ongoing scrutiny of such life and death decision-making. Utahns need to understand what was purchased and why, and they need to understand the decision-making process, including who was ultimately responsible and the reasons involved. Accountability guards against political maneuvering.

Beyond the current circumstances, this information could be vital as the state considers addressing emergency rules for a future crisis.

Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not undergone clinical trials. The Food and Drug Administration had initially approved only the emergency use of the drugs that had been donated to the Strategic National Stockpile. It has since warned about dangerous side-effects leading to heart problems, and has advised that the drugs be used only in clinical trials or under close supervision in a hospital. Still, several state and local governments began stockpiling the drugs after President Donald Trump began speaking favorably about them.

Utah’s involvement in this has to be considered in the context of the fervor of the pandemic — a fervor, we note, that still exists. Ultimately, a post-pandemic review also must include the reasons behind today’s push to reopen parts of the Utah economy despite a rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Honest miscalculations may be excused, but they still must be exposed, reviewed and understood.