For our series about journalists’ favorite tools, we spoke with Katherine Eban, an investigative journalist and author who has received numerous awards for her work on gun trafficking, pharmaceutical counterfeiting, and CIA interrogations.
Currently a contributor to Vanity Fair, Eban exposed endemic fraud in the global generic drug manufacturing industry in her recent best-selling book “Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom.” She has already broken three major stories on COVID-19.
She revealed that her COVID-19 investigations have been largely based on low-tech tools and paper documents — rather than some of the advanced digital search functions that are widely in use — and described how old-school approaches to wielding these tools can be effective in reaching sources during periods of lockdown.
Reporting for Reuters in April, Eban investigated a major donation of the drug Resochin to the United States’ national stockpile by German drugmaker Bayer, after the product was fast-tracked for approval for treating COVID-19 patients. She not only found that the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), had approved the drug without ever inspecting the drug’s manufacturing plants in Pakistan and India, but also that Pakistan’s regulator had found significant problems at Bayer’s Karachi plant. She also uncovered serious red flags about the Indian plant.
Reporting for Vanity Fair, Eban exposed a political campaign to pressure health officials to bend medical rules in order to flood New York and New Jersey with malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which is being used experimentally to treat COVID-19. In May, she revealed how a key official at the US Department of Health and Human Services had been persecuted for resisting political pressure to invest in unproven COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.
Her secret? Eban puts it like this: “My reporting on this outbreak so far has been low-tech because I’ve been aiming for people, and paper records.”
Here are some of Eban’s favorite methods and tools for digging into the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Scissors, Old Clips, and LinkedIn
“In [publications like] The New York Times, you see these petitions and open letters, where medical societies and public health officials — maybe 50 of them — will have signed an open letter demanding that the government do X. I cut out that ad, and put it in a file called “experts”. I now go through that file and look for experts I can contact [on COVID-19], because those people are already outspoken and on the record, and I turn to them for help.
“In the US, as in other countries, there are a finite group of sources at the very top of the food chain within the federal government, for example, and everyone’s competing for a similar group of sources.
“I look for maître d’s: Who do I know who could introduce me? I use LinkedIn all the time, but I use it now to research my own contacts too. I’m also using my old steel Rolodex, which is kind of like a horse and buggy today.
“Also, we’ve all got bails of business cards from conferences. I’ve spent so much time matching my old business cards to my LinkedIn, and seeing where people I used to know have landed, and can they help me.
“Early on in my reporting on hydroxychloroquine, my sources at the FDA were flagging to me that there was something very strange going on. It was a donation by Bayer of 3 million hydroxychloroquine pills, but the FDA wanted to accept those drugs [for COVID-19 treatment] even though they came from a plant in Pakistan that had never been inspected by the FDA. From my study of FDA regulations, I knew that was unusual. I went through my LinkedIn network, and found someone in Pakistan who liked my book.
“I reached out to that person, who turned out to be the regulator who had inspected that Bayer plant in Pakistan, and who in short order was able to give me inspection records that showed there had been a whistleblower complaint, and that the plant had been making substandard doses of hydroxychloroquine.”
Organizational Charts, with Ex-Officials Added
“Public health and pharmaceutical bureaucracies are often very complex.
“One thing I’d recommend is to find organizational charts, print them out, and then — next to the names of the officials who hold the current positions — find the former officials and write those names in. Always note former and current; former and current. Those former officials most often have mobile numbers for the current officials, and mobile numbers right now are like gold, because everybody’s working from home, and if you contact somebody through a government email address, they’re not going to answer, because everyone is scared. You can then take those mobile numbers and put them into WhatsApp and Signal, and see if they’re on there, and contact them that way. Because then you’re going to give them assurance of some kind of confidentiality.
“My experience from having reported in the developing world is that a lot of those government officials are less closely guarded than some in [the West]. You might be able to just get officials on the phone.
“I remember, in Accra, Ghana, just waltzing into Ghana’s FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and just wandering through the laboratories.
“You want mid-level employees within agencies. My experience is the best information is offered off the record, or on-background.”
Cultivate Sources, and Have a Thick Skin
“I’ve sort of honed a new technique in the middle of this crazy pandemic.
“If you aim for someone you want to talk to, one thing to do is pretend you have a relationship with them until you actually do. I have taken to sending emails every couple of days to sources I’m trying to cultivate, even if they never respond, to say, ‘Hey I’m reporting on this,’ and offering them information. They’re just as curious as everyone else as to what is going on several levels above them, so if you become a source of information, and you’re not just asking for information, then eventually, by the tenth email, you might get an email back, maybe. That’s what happened to me.
“So long as they’re not threatening to call the police to stop contacting them, there is the potential for a relationship.
“Another thing is the gift of time. If you dash off a hasty email, why should that person respond — if [it seems] you don’t know anything? You have to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework.
“Here is an exchange I had with a potential source while I was reporting on “Bottle of Lies,” where I had reached out to somebody in a government bureaucracy, and they wrote: ‘I’m still not convinced this story should be told … I’m also not convinced you are the person that’s ready to tell this story. You haven’t demonstrated your knowledge to me.’
“That is what we call an invitation. Three months later, that person gave me a thumb drive with 20,000 documents on it, which became the backbone for my book. He had come to trust me.
“Don’t assume what side someone is on. There are all kinds of internal divisions in these organizations that could turn someone into a source. One of the best sources in a story I’m working on now was someone I initially thought I was investigating.
“If you’re reaching out through Signal or WhatsApp, you need to identify yourself, the story you’re pursuing, and a reason why they might want to talk to you.
“I have been more aggressive in my outreach during this pandemic than I ever would have believed. Someone replies to say ‘Good luck with your story, but no comment.’ And I’m thinking: ‘That’s great: he’s emailing me back.’ So I can go back, and say ‘Great to hear from you.’ You have got to pretend they have not said ‘no’. Go back, and back.
“Then you hear from people who say: ‘I’m working 16 hours a day to save people’s lives, I don’t have time to talk to you.’ OK, now they’ve given you an important piece of information: They’ve told you what matters to them. So then you say: ‘That’s my goal too,’ and you demonstrate that your goals align. That’s really how I’m reporting this.”
Tour Guides and Watercoolers
“Because some of this reporting is so complex, you need tour guides. At every opportunity, you want to cultivate a troupe of experts you can turn to to decipher the information; to ask if something you’ve seen or heard is abnormal.
“I’m reporting right now on a clinical trial and I’ve cultivated experts I can share that trial with, and say: “Does this seem strange to you?” With that input, I got the courage and impulse to dig further.
“If you’re trying to track something, you need to break down every place that information might flow. So if I’m tracking medicine, I’m thinking about doctors, medical societies, regulators, patient advocacy groups, plaintiffs’ lawyers, legal records. What are the databases where medical information is tracked? The FDA have an Orange Book that lists all the drug approvals, or ClinicalTrials.gov, which is a database of all the trials ongoing for COVID.
“I’m doing a story now where ClinicalTrials.gov has been critical. You can find out when the trials were submitted, what the measures are, and when they were modified. There are email addresses in there, and it literally gives you phone numbers for the principal investigators. One website I use a lot — though I’m loathe to recommend it because it’s a paid-for service — is Govzilla. It aggregates every FDA inspection anywhere in the world. But you have to know what the relevant key words are. Like the company name and “warning letter,” or “483” which is the number of the form they use for observations.
“Look at foreign regulators also. Think about the World Health Organization, oversight bodies, inspectors general, medical journals. I spend a lot of time on YouTube, looking at promotional videos. Where is medicine made? What are the processes? How to make a syringe, how to make a glass vial — very useful.
“Investigating the drug supply chains is a tough one, because the pharmaceutical supply chain is really opaque. In the US, the FDA does not even know where its drugs come from. The supply chain is really broken up. You have drug components — starting chemicals, active ingredients, and finished doses — and those go to middlemen and brokers, and those then go to pharmacies. You have to figure out who your sources are at each step — who is downstream and who is upstream. You may be able get help from manufacturers, who are trying to track their own supplies. There are RFID [radio frequency identification tags] and smart tags on some products.
“Think about company watercoolers — what are the clearing houses where employees go to anonymously complain about their companies? Cafepharma is a great one. You can post who you are and what you’re looking for, and invite people to contact you.
“Look at company annual reports. Look for risk categories in business documents.”
Consider the Big Picture
“I’ve spent time just sitting at my desk — not making calls, not emailing — and just thinking about how this all fits together. Who’s got information, and where does it go?
“I try to start every morning just reading. I’m reading an incredibly useful mailing list, [that includes] a lot of COVID news through CIDRAP (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy), which is at the University of Minnesota. They are really low to the ground on a lot of the science.
“If you’re not lying awake at night, and not trying to visualize what the records are that you’re aiming for, then you’re not really working your story.”
Rowan Philp is a reporter for GIJN. Rowan was formerly chief reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times. As a foreign correspondent, he has reported on news, politics, corruption, and conflict from more than two dozen countries around the world.