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Why Philadelphia Gave A 22-Year-Old's Startup A Vaccine Contract — Then Canceled It

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next, to a scandal in Philadelphia over an inexperienced startup company that was supposed to distribute the coronavirus vaccine. The startup called Philly Fighting COVID is led by a 22-year-old with no background in health care. Reporters at member station WNYC started investigating and found serious problems. And the city cut ties with the company this week. Health reporter Nina Feldman explains how it all fell apart.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: It started out as a group of college friends using 3D printers to make face shields. Then they opened a testing site in a neighborhood that needed it. Soon, they set their sights on vaccines. On an early October evening, CEO Andrei Doroshin gathered his staff on a Philadelphia rooftop and unveiled his plan with a fancy PowerPoint.

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ANDREI DOROSHIN: This is a wholly Elon Musk just shooting for the heavens kind of thing. You want to have a preemptive strike on the vaccine and basically beat everybody in Philadelphia to it.

FELDMAN: The goal was to vaccinate more than a million people.

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DOROSHIN: Now there's the juicy slide. How are we getting paid? We're going be billing insurance companies - $24 per vaccine. I just told you how many vaccines we want to do. You can do the math in your head.

FELDMAN: Doroshin to his dazzling presentation to city council. And by January 8, Doroshin and Mayor Jim Kenney were standing side by side, kicking off the first mass vaccination clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

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JIM KENNEY: Good morning again. First, I want to thank the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and Philly Fighting COVID for organizing this clinic.

FELDMAN: Every weekend, the city gave Philly Fighting COVID thousands of vaccine doses to administer. But the logistical strengths that had made the startup seem so attractive to the city started to falter fast. For one thing, Philly Fighting COVID reorganized as a for-profit and abruptly stopped testing. Michael Brown had been working with them to do testing on Martin Luther King Day. He says Doroshin told his group that testing just wasn't important anymore.

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MICHAEL BROWN: The statement that he made was very clear - I don't believe the testing is relevant anymore. People don't follow the instructions. People don't do what they're supposed to do. So - and all it does - and I quote - "is cause panic." positive.

FELDMAN: Things weren't going smoothly at the convention center, either. Jillian Horne came to get a shot and watched as seniors were turned away due to booking errors.

JILLIAN HORN: There was literally 85-year-old, 90-year-old people standing there, like, with printed appointment confirmations saying, I don't understand why I can't get vaccinated on 85.

FELDMAN: Last weekend, Doroshin was seen by volunteer nurse Katrina Lipinsky, pocketing vaccines and taking them off site.

KATRINA LIPINSKY: It's definitely rubbed me the wrong way to watch Andrei walk pretty openly from the vaccine area over to his belongings and packed I don't know how many vaccines - I would guess maybe 10 or 15 - in a plastic bag with the CDC vaccination record cards.

FELDMAN: Now, after the city has cut ties, Health Commissioner Tom Farley is on the defensive.

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TOM FARLEY: I hope people can understand why it is - on the surface, this looked like a good thing.

FELDMAN: Investigations are being launched. And many are wondering why the city didn't turn to even one of its four major hospitals for help.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

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CORNISH: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WNYC and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.