SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer protection lawsuit today against a Redmond business and its owner for advertising a so-called COVID-19 “vaccine.” The lawsuit comes just over a month after Ferguson sent a cease and desist letter to the company, North Coast Biologics, and its owner, Johnny T. Stine.
The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts Stine violated the Consumer Protection Act when he made unsupported claims about his supposed “vaccine” and administered it to dozens of Washingtonians without taking proper steps to evaluate its safety or effectiveness. Stine sold and administered the vaccine to about 30 people, most of whom were Washingtonians, for $400 each.
After receiving the cease and desist letter, Stine indicated he has stopped selling his product, but failed to enter into a legally binding agreement to stop selling the purported “vaccine.”
Stine began selling the vaccine via his Facebook profile on March 2, 2020, around the time COVID-19 began to peak in the country and Seattle. In social media posts, Stine claimed to have developed a “vaccine” in “half a day” that made him immune to COVID-19 after he tested it on himself.
“Mr. Stine sold this so-called ‘vaccine’ to people in Washington who are frightened and more apt to look for a miracle cure in the midst of a worldwide pandemic,” Ferguson said. “This is not only morally wrong — it’s illegal.”
North Coast Biologics is a self-described “antibody discovery company” based in King County, founded and directed by Stine. In January 2012, the company failed to file for a business license renewal and was administratively dissolved by the state. However, Stine continues to operate North Coast Biologics and used the company’s Facebook page — now defunct — to promote his products.
In March and April, Stine made several social media posts both on his page and on the page for North Coast Biologics attempting to sell the vaccine.
In one post, Stine claims his vaccine made him immune to COVID-19 and he had sent his product to China for testing. He later posted he would not wait for any health agencies to create or approve a vaccine and noted he would not “wait several months for something so trivial it took me half a day to design???? OMFG!” He also noted “coronaviruses are easy as [expletive] to make a vaccine against.”
Although numerous COVID-19 vaccines are currently in early stages of clinical trials, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any vaccine for use in the prevention of COVID-19. Developing a safe, effective vaccine against a new pathogen can take years, if not decades. In April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and an advisor to the president on the COVID-19 response, suggested that having an approved vaccine against COVID-19 may be “doable” by January 2021 “if things fall in the right place.”
In mid-April, Stine also posted on the Facebook page of the Friday Harbor mayor and offered to vaccinate him. Stine said in the posts he would also take care of the San Juan Island town’s residents, who then expressed concern about the legitimacy of the vaccine. He subsequently denigrated the residents of the town and wrote they did not understand science.
On May 21, the FDA sent a warning letter to North Coast Biologics, telling him to remove postings about the purported vaccine.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts Stine and North Coast Biologics violated the Consumer Protection Act by:
- Misrepresenting the health benefits of the purported “vaccine” they developed and marketed,
- Claiming that the product they developed could vaccinate consumers against COVID-19 without adequate scientific evidence to support these claims,
- Offering a so-called “vaccine” without adequately testing the product’s effectiveness or safety,
- Claiming that Stine himself was immune from COVID-19 without adequate scientific evidence, and
- Offering to cure a human disease, ailment, or condition without a medical license. Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to award civil penalties, restitution and attorney’s costs and fees, in addition to requiring Stine and North Coast Biologics to stop their unlawful conduct. Violations of the Consumer Protection Act carry a civil penalty of up to $2,000 per individual violation.
Assistant Attorney General Audrey Udashen is handling the case for Washington.
Scammers trying to capitalize on COVID-19 fears
Scammers are sending texts and emails promising to protect people from the virus, or offering cash payments to help weather the crisis. In reality, these messages are trying to obtain personal information, efforts known as phishing, or install harmful software on your device, called malware. Some types of software, known as ransomware, can be used to lock you out of your device until you pay the scammer. The risks of clicking unknown links are serious and real.
Washingtonians should be wary of these types of messages. Tips for avoiding COVID-19 scams:
- Be skeptical — there is no cure for COVID-19.
- Don’t click on links — they can be malicious.
- Don’t provide your personal information to unknown sources who may be trying to get your personal or financial information.
- Don’t donate money without researching who is asking for your money — there are many bogus charities offering to help.
- Visit trusted resources for legitimate information about COVID-19, like government health departments or your health care provider.
The Attorney General’s Office is continuing to investigate reports of unfair business practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. To file a complaint, visit the Attorney General’s website at www.atg.wa.gov/file-complaint.