The nine employees of a fledgling California company called Curative were developing a new test for sepsis when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States in early 2020. Barely a year later, the company is running three of Massachusetts’ six mass vaccination sites, emerging as a key part of Governor Charlie Baker’s drive to inoculate 4.1 million Massachusetts residents.
But, as it prepares to open its third clinic Wednesday at an old Circuit City store in Dartmouth, Curative’s extraordinary growth has come with its share of bumps — and questions. The company had been running COVID vaccine sites for about five weeks when it set up shop in Massachusetts. And Curative first captured wide public attention in Massachusetts two weeks ago when long lines formed outside its Danvers vaccination site amid rumors that the company might have extra doses to inject in anyone who could get there soon enough. That followed problems at its Springfield site.
Because of the health emergency, Curative received the contract to run the three mass vaccination clinics without competitive bidding. Curative was introduced to the Baker administration by an official at the nonprofit that runs the state’s contact tracing program.
A top official in Dartmouth is uneasy that such a new company is taking the lead on such an important job in his town.
“I am disappointed that the state is entrusting public health to private, pop-up companies,” said Christopher Michaud, Dartmouth’s public health director, in an interview late last week. “You hear about Danvers and Springfield, and that should have never happened.” Even after a walk through of the site with a Curative team on Monday, Michaud said he was concerned about the company’s plans for parking and traffic flow.
Senator Diana DiZoglio, Democrat of Methuen, questions the growing number of no-bid contracts awarded private companies by the Baker administration during the pandemic. She is calling on the state auditor and inspector general to investigate.
“We understand during an emergency certain emergency actions should be taken,” DiZoglio said. “But it doesn’t mean one person should have unilateral authority to pick and choose private companies to do this type of work. These are taxpayer dollars.”
Curative’s contract with the state guarantees it $45, which is twice the Medicare rate, for every shot that it can’t get reimbursed from an insurance company. With three sites in operation, that could generate tens of thousands of dollars in revenue daily.
The Baker administration said in a statement that it selected Curative because of the company’s experience operating large scale COVID-19 testing sites over the past year, experience that Curative has applied as it moved into vaccine distribution.
“Curative has been working with major cities, states, and organizations across the US on COVID-19 vaccinations,” the statement said.
A spokeswoman for the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center also said it has worked with Curative to address the problems in Springfield and Danvers.
Officials at Curative, led by a 25-year-old Oxford University drop-out who was once named the United Kingdom’s young engineer of the year, say they are more than up to the job of running large vaccine clinics.
The company, which has 5,000 employees nationwide, switched its focus to COVID-19 testing last March, and today Curative provides a million tests a week in 15 states, according to a Curative release. The company’s testing work, which does not include sites in the commonwealth, led to vaccinations.
Isaac Turner, Curative’s chief information officer and co-founder, declined to discuss the company’s Massachusetts rollout but said early stumbles are expected with rapid expansion.
“You always experience growing pains, you just space them out over a longer time,” Turner said. “If you grow slower they are less noticeable.”
Curative’s problems were certainly noticeable, as the company ran into overflowing crowds at three vaccination sites in two states in the space of a week.
Hordes descended on the Danvers DoubleTree hotel Feb. 10, backing up traffic, after Curative workers called people who were registered with appointments later in the week to come to the hotel that day so extra vaccines wouldn’t go to waste. Dozens waited hours in the cold, only to learn they wouldn’t get a shot.
Two days earlier, many more waited for hours outside another Curative clinic at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said Curative didn’t have enough staff and it poorly communicated directions about when individuals should enter for an appointment. Baker sent the National Guard to help untangle the mess.
Just days before its Massachusetts missteps, Curative ran into similar problems with its early rollout of a vaccine clinic in Collin County, Texas. Hundreds of people waited in line for hours, creating traffic backups and mounting anger. In an emergency meeting of county commissioners the next night, Curative acknowledged it was overbooking appointments and had invited 2,000 more people that day than they had doses to administer.
Curative told the commissioners it was fixing its appointment software.
Curative has seen a meteoric rise since last winter, when its team created a saliva-based COVID-19 test that didn’t require nasal swabs.
Initially, the company thought COVID testing would be a detour, Turner said, “We’ll do this for three months and we’ll go back to developing sepsis [research and development] tools.”
But the company’s COVID work rapidly took off. Aided by connections in the biotech industry and an early $8 million in venture capital funding, Curative ended up buying an accredited lab to start processing its own COVID-19 tests. Curative also scored a $42 million Department of Defense contract for its COVID tests.
But the company’s testing program has not always run smoothly. In January, the Food and Drug Administration issued a safety notice about the company’s test, saying it can produce a concerning number of false negative results if used on people without symptoms. The FDA said in a statement to the Globe it is reviewing additional information Curative submitted but declined further comment.
Curative first administered vaccines through a small pilot program giving flu shots in Los Angeles in the fall, then opened its first COVID-19 vaccination site there on Jan. 10. Its first Massachusetts site opened in Springfield Jan. 29.
Joe Wilson, a former partner at venture capital firm MarsBio, said he’s impressed that Curative figured out how to ramp up vaccinations quickly.
“It seems like they have developed a pretty needed model right now and have been able to scale it up really impressively,” he said. Wilson knew one of Curative’s co-founders and helped the company find its first lab to process its COVID-19 tests.
Curative lacked deep political connections in Massachusetts, but a senior adviser to the high-powered nonprofit group Partners in Health, which leads the state’s contact tracing initiative, introduced the company to the Baker administration after he heard about Curative’s saliva tests. A Partners in Health spokesman said the adviser sent a three-sentence e-mail to the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center in December suggesting it take a look at Curative.
Turner said Curative had been scouting opportunities for expansion into delivering vaccinations, especially in places where there is “a lot of noise about a state having a lot of doses and not much of a plan.”
Massachusetts proved to be fertile territory, with the Baker administration facing nearly daily brickbats for a slow rollout and too many vaccines sitting in freezers rather than going into arms. As Turner put it, Massachusetts “wanted someone to move quickly.”
Turner said Curative makes most of its money from insurance company reimbursements for the tests and vaccines it administers. That requires the company to work quickly and hit high volumes to cover its expenses.
“There aren’t many companies willing to launch themselves into this because there is a real risk they could lose a lot of money,” Turner said.
But DiZoglio, the senator, said the bigger problem is the lack of transparency from the Baker administration about its private contracting during the pandemic.
“We should not have to pull teeth to get this,” DiZoglio said. “This is information that the administration has had access to but has prevented the general public from having access” to without a more open process.