Philly Let A Startup Of “College Kids” Run Its Vaccine Rollout. It Didn’t Go Well.

What seemed like an entrepreneurial, altruistic enterprise quickly devolved into controversy.

Clarissa Cooper-Nowell (second to right) waits for 15 minutes in the observation area after receiving the coronavirus vaccine at the mass-vaccination center set up by Philly Fighting COVID at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on January 15, 2021. | Getty Images
Clarissa Cooper-Nowell (second to right) waits for 15 minutes in the observation area after receiving the coronavirus vaccine at the mass-vaccination center set up by Philly Fighting COVID at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on January 15, 2021. | Getty Images

During a once-in-a-century pandemic, we’ve seen our share of haphazard ideas — from hoarding toilet paper to protesting face masks — as well as systemic failures, including the disproportionate impact of the outbreak on Black and brown people. Now, in a week where Redditors beat Wall Street at its own game, a 22-year-old man with no medical experience is the subject of scrutiny for his role in Philadelphia’s bungled vaccine rollout.

In Philadelphia, city officials tasked a self-described “group of college kids” running an organization called Philly Fighting COVID with distributing vaccines at its first mass vaccination site. After a series of reported mishaps — senior citizens being turned away and crying, its 22-year-old CEO being accused of taking doses off-site and administering them, and an allegedly nontransparent change in data policy — the group has gained national attention. 

Philly Fighting COVID’s CEO, entrepreneur Andrei Doroshin, appeared to have a well-meaning agenda and a story glowing enough for a national interview with NBC’s “TODAY”: His group of volunteers 3D-printed personal protective equipment last summer, garnering press and public attention in Philadelphia. In a now-deleted bio on the group’s website, Doroshin, a Drexel student, reportedly listed a bunch of flashy titles, including CEO of a real estate firm and founder of a (high school) film department; one of his other associated production companies produced videos of parkour routines. In 2020, Doroshin further built the group’s reputation by providing COVID-19 testing across the city. He pivoted fully to vaccination efforts earlier this year. 

The group then shut down its testing clinics this month that people came to rely on, didn’t reveal a change in status from nonprofit to for-profit, and updated its privacy policy without disclosing the potential sale of personal data.

Philadelphia cut ties with Philly Fighting COVID on Monday; the city’s district attorney Larry Krasner has asked anyone with knowledge of criminal activity to report it. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) has made a callout for complaints for anyone who feels misled by the group. 

In a press conference, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said, “Obviously, in retrospect, this organization, it wasn't good for us.” Farley called the allegation that the organization diverted doses “very disturbing” if true. “We’re going to do what we can to find out if there were any missing doses,” he said. The City Council has also demanded that officials who greenlit this idea answer questions, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported; members of the Council appeared at an event earlier this month with Philly Fighting COVID. 

Doroshin does not face any criminal charges as of January 29, and he has apologized for various allegations this week. In a second interview with the “TODAY Show” on Thursday after the group came under fire, he admitted to and stood by his decision to take four doses off-site and give them to friends. He denied wrongdoing again in a video conference Friday, the Inquirer reported.

 "The doses were about to expire," he told NBC. "We called everybody we knew. Every single person."

Philly Fighting COVID was notably led by all white people in a city where 42% of the population is Black and 41% is white — and Black people are more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. There is a local organization that has addressed that problem: Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. The group’s founder Dr. Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon who grew up in North Philadelphia, told Philadelphia Magazine after the fallout: “If there was anybody poised and ready to do this, it was us.” Stanford told the magazine that “she was irked” when someone from the city proposed she partner with Philly Fighting COVID on a distribution plan. She continued: “We’ve been giving flu vaccines since October and doing COVID testing in the hardest-hit communities, and I happen to have been a doctor for 23 years, longer than some of these kids have been living, but I need these white kids to teach me how to do it?”

In a situation so dire as the COVID-19 pandemic, small mistakes and massive failures have happened. The U.S. has been a global epicenter of the virus thanks in large part to government mismanagement. But in looking to urgently vaccinate people who are more at risk of death from a virus, Philadelphia turned to a so-called “group of college kids.”

How does a city recover from that?