The Race for Virus Money Is On. Lobbyists Are Standing By.
Kenneth P. Vogel • Mar 28, 2020
The federal government is open for coronavirus business, and the scramble to get some of it is on.
A South Carolina company has hired a lobbyist close to President Trump to try to win regulatory approval to sell a misting spray to kill coronavirus on airplanes. A Manhattan company is seeking money from the $2 trillion stimulus package for its quick-change recyclable hospital curtains. Two prominent and well-connected Republican fund-raisers have linked up with competing businesses, both claiming to be able to acquire coveted equipment like coronavirus test kits and masks.
Across the country, companies see a chance to cash in, do some good for the country or both, making virus outbreak response one of the few thriving sectors of the economy. And because so much of the business runs through Washington, the rush has created new opportunities for those who can offer access, influence and expertise in navigating bureaucratic hurdles and securing chunks of the relief package Mr. Trump signed into law on Friday.
The boomlet has left the federal agencies responsible for regulating cleaning supplies, medical devices and medicines working overtime on requests to certify products for use in coronavirus response — and to clamp down on fraud.
The Food and Drug Administration has been processing a surge in applications for coronavirus vaccine and treatment trials. But the agency also has spent considerable time and resources fighting what it calls “fraudulent Covid-19 products.”
Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency has been cracking down on unregistered products claiming to kill coronavirus, and processing requests to list various disinfectants as approved to kill the virus on surfaces.
“I was on the phone earlier with E.P.A. today, and we’re both working 24/7,” said Hal Ambuter, who leads North American regulatory and government affairs for the British consumer-product maker Reckitt Benckiser, which makes Lysol disinfectants.
The company has been working with the E.P.A. to add more of the brand’s products to a list of disinfectants approved to kill coronavirus on surfaces. “There is a lot of work in our side, and there is a lot of work on their side to handle the volume of requests that have come in,” he said in an interview on Friday.
The company’s outside counsel, Benjamin Dunham, lobbied Congress on provisions included in the stimulus bill, which included $1.5 million for the E.P.A. to facilitate faster regulatory processing of coronavirus-killing disinfectants.
Reckitt Benckiser has paid Mr. Dunham’s firm $30,000 so far this year, according to a lobbying report filed this week. It indicated that a focus of his lobbying was increasing E.P.A. funding “to expedite registration actions involving disinfectant products that are effective against” coronavirus.
This month, a South Carolina-based company called NanoPure hired Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who is a top fund-raiser for Mr. Trump, to help it seek approval for a misting spray disinfectant system to kill bacteria and viruses on airplanes and airports and other institutional settings.
On its website, the company says it “has obtained an exclusive, worldwide license from the United States Government to sell and distribute NanoPure’s nanotechnology platform which kills air- and surface-borne mold, bacteria, and viruses at a 99.9999% rate of effectiveness.”
The law and lobbying firm Holland & Knight set up an entire “Covid-19 Response Team,” which is expected to grow to include as many as 60 lawyers, according to someone familiar with the firm’s efforts.
In a promotional brochure, it promised it could help prospective clients “survive and succeed during this uncertain period,” by securing government grants and “pandemic response funds in federal legislation” for a wide variety of uses.
The firm also says it can help laboratories navigate the Food and Drug Administration’s approval processes to bring “tests and treatments to market efficiently and effectively,” and apply for the agency’s emergency use authorization “to allow marketing of a coronavirus test.”
The firm lobbied to shape the stimulus bill on behalf of a hotel industry client, according to the person familiar with the firm’s efforts. It also helped get clients in the paper and chemical industries included on a list of critical industries allowed to continue operations during coronavirus-triggered shutdowns.
Last week, the firm registered to lobby for the battery maker Energizer Holdings on issues including winning “designation as critical industry/infrastructure on coronavirus relief packages,” according to a filing.
Van D. Hipp Jr., a former deputy assistant secretary of the Army and Republican Party official, registered this month as a lobbyist for one company involved in diagnostic testing and another that provides treatments for viral infections. On lobbying registration forms, he indicated he would arrange “meetings with officials regarding rapid testing for Covid-19,” and reach out to Congress on “issues related to the treatment of immune compromised patients who have documented Covid-19 infections.”
Lee C. Weingart, the founder of the lobbying firm LNE Group, said his firm is “busier now than we’ve been,” because of the stimulus.
His firm registered this week to lobby for On the Right Track Systems, Inc., a Manhattan-based manufacturer of recyclable hospital cubical curtains, to assist in obtaining federal money allocated to states and hospitals for coronavirus treatment.
Mr. Weingart said that the company has seen a sharp spike in demand for its curtains, which he said can be replaced in a fraction of the time it takes to replace more traditional curtains that surround hospital beds. “They’re shipping twice as many curtains in March as they did in January and February,” he said, adding that, in coronavirus response, “turnover of hospital rooms is critical.”
A Buffalo-area team is working to win approval from the E.P.A. for a retail version of a disinfectant.
A concentrated disinfectant made by one of the firms involved was added by the E.P.A. this month to the list of products that could be marketed to kill germs in the coronavirus family. The company linked up with Joe Mallare, who co-owns a company that makes melamine sponges, to try to sell a diluted version to individual customers. But the E.P.A. informed the team on Thursday that they would need to submit a new application, rather than an amendment to their existing registration for the concentrated blend, which is sold to institutional customers.
Mr. Mallare said his team is still committed to winning approval, and called the E.P.A. “very understanding and helpful,” including engaging in midnight email exchanges about the application process. “With this virus going, everybody in America needs this,” he said of his team’s product.
Mr. Mallare is being assisted by a pair of Republican operatives, David Ferguson and Peggy J. Ellis. They have enlisted support for the effort from members of Congress and helped Mr. Mallare’s team connect with the appropriate officials in the E.P.A.’s Antimicrobials Division.
Mr. Ferguson, who specializes in conservative issue advocacy and is not a registered federal lobbyist, said “we’re just trying to use our connections to do what’s right for the country in a time of national crisis.” He said he’s doing the work on a volunteer basis, adding “this is not my core business, and now is not a time for making money.”
For plenty of other Washington veterans, coronavirus is, indeed, a time for making money.
Mike Gula, a veteran Republican fund-raiser whose firm has been paid more than $36 million since 2008 by a range of top Republican politicians and political committees, sent an email on Thursday to clients announcing that he was leaving political fund-raising to focus his “full attention” on “another business outside politics.”
That business is a newly incorporated firm called Blue Flame Medical that boasts on its website that it has assembled an array of “hard-to-find medical supplies to beat the outbreak,” including respirator & surgical masks, coronavirus test kits “and a wide selection” of personal protective equipment.
Neither Mr. Gula nor his partner in the business, a fellow Republican operative named John Thomas, had much experience in the medical supply field.
But Mr. Thomas said in an interview on Saturday that the connections they made through their work in politics helped them find suppliers and connect to customers, including large medical systems and law enforcement agencies around the world, including in the Middle East.
“In politics — especially if you’re at a high enough level — you are one phone call away from anybody in the world,” Mr. Thomas said, adding that his new company had partnered with firms to sell and distribute its products. “It’s not about the financial motivations,” he said of his new venture, which was revealed Friday by Politico. “We’re here to solve a need to help people.”
Brad Wilson, another veteran Republican fund-raiser, who works for a firm that has been paid nearly $4 million by politicians and political committees since 2008, emailed contacts on Thursday on behalf of an Arizona-based firm called CashLabs, which is selling coronavirus-related supplies.
“If you, your company, or clients are in need of large quantities of masks, rapid test kits, or long lasting sanitizing coating (up to 6 months, child and pet friendly), please see attached,” he wrote. He attached a brochure listing prices and minimum orders for products, including $35 for a test that provides results in 10 minutes, with a minimum order of 25,000 tests. “Let me know, and I will be happy to set up a call for pricing and details,” he wrote.
In a brief phone interview on Saturday, Mr. Wilson said he had passed along the pricing sheet on behalf of a family friend who is involved in CashLabs. Mr. Wilson declined to comment when asked if he would receive a commission on sales he arranged.
Then there are industries that are appealing to the government for help repurposing existing products to help with the crisis. They include the plastics industry, which is making a plea to rethink bans on single-use plastic bags, arguing that they are more sanitary than reusable bags.
And the liquor distillers who are converting their production to hand sanitizers this week asked Congress for an exemption on the federal excise tax on liquor.
The exemption, sought by the Distilled Spirits Council, was included in the stimulus bill, but there was a wrinkle. The bill stipulated that, to qualify for the break, the hand sanitizer had to meet certain standards from the F.D.A., which has yet to approve the type of sanitizer most distilleries are producing.
Chris R. Swonger, the president of the spirits council, said most of the distilleries producing hand sanitizer want to give it away to emergency medical workers and hospitals “because the sooner we’re able to defeat Covid-19, the sooner they’ll be up making whiskey and distilled spirits again.”
You can read the full article by Kenneth P. Vogel here.
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