The Theranos Story, ch. 24: looking for the nadir in Walgreens’ lawsuit

click to enlargeWhen will we find the nadir of Theranos’ business practices? Between the excruciating details of the Walgreens lawsuit and the treatment of an employee who knew the truth in 2014 (part 2), the bottom, like Jacob’s Well in Texas at left, may be unfindable.

The first is what is revealed in the public version (filed 15 Nov) of the civil complaint filed with the US District Court, District of Delaware (PDF). While heavily redacted in parts of text and in the exhibits, it is damning if all true–and there is little available information that does not fit Walgreens‘ narrative, though this Editor was left wondering why red flags about Theranos didn’t flap ‘n’ fly at Walgreens much earlier, especially with a reported $140 million investment at stake.

The relationship began in January 2010. A March presentation by Theranos included some astonishing claims: the Theranos finger-stick blood draw lab analysis had been comprehensively validated by ten of the leading fifteen pharmaceutical companies over seven years; that bio-pharma companies, “prominent research institutions, and US and foreign government health and military organizations” had already used the technology; that Theranos was capable of launching it in retail stores by end of 2010. They also represented that they were positioned with FDA to introduce the technology outside of clinical studies. Johns Hopkins, contracted by Walgreens to validate their methodology, could only work with data provided by Theranos.

Did anyone at Walgreens think to check with said pharmas, researchers, government health and military organizations? There was time. The master agreement was not signed until 2012 and pilot stores opened in 2013.  (Pages 5-10, section 24 through 50). Interestingly, pages 11-12 which may deal with the labs, as well as many other parts, are heavily redacted.

In short, there is a gap of at least two years when Walgreens could have double-checked Theranos’ claims and methods, especially in the crucial period before pilot locations were opened. (To be fair, Theranos successfully maintained a veil of secrecy and a wall of PR smoke.) But the repercussions were huge.  It seems that Walgreens only woke up from the dream when the Wall Street Journal published its investigation another two years later in October 2015. In the immediate aftermath of the article, Walgreens learned that Theranos had abandoned the finger-stick draws…and that the head of the Newark CA lab was a full-time dermatologist onsite once a week (page 15).

After that point, the Theranos fan dance with Walgreens accelerates.

  • Theranos concealed the January and March 2016 CMS notices and subsequent reports on its labs to Walgreens until again the WSJ publicly revealed it (pages 17-18, 25). They also attempted to conceal the CMS rejection of the Plan of Correction for its labs (page 24).
  • Theranos accused Walgreens of breaching the agreement and confidentiality to the WSJ , and also cited delay in building out Wellness Centers–in February 2016 (pages 20-21)
  • Walgreens received nothing but evasions from Theranos including no notification of ‘tens of thousands’ voided results, including critical PT/INR coagulation results, until after the WSJ broke that bit of news on 18 May (page 26).

By 12 June 2016, the wheels were fully off (and the world was minding, indeed) and Walgreens called the breach of warranty. But even then, this was not until a final push–lawsuits were filed against both Theranos and Walgreens starting in late May.

One wonders how many reputations are on a stake (to mix two metaphors) at Walgreens Boots. Details in Ars Technica (which obtained the PDF and broke the story) and of course Neil Versel’s acerbic POV in MedCityNews. Hat tip to reader David Albert MD of AliveCor.

See here for the 23 previous TTA chapters in this Continuing Saga.

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