Why Dr. Vladimir Zelenko staked his reputation on hydroxychloroquine
Dr. Vladimir Zelenko went for an urgent blood-clot removal surgery two years ago and wound up losing his entire right lung. The surgeons found it riddled with a rare and aggressive cancer — pulmonary artery sarcoma. Without highly toxic chemotherapy to prevent its return, his doctor told him, the disease would likely kill him.
Zelenko was then an unknown family practitioner, treating mostly Hasidic patients in a clinic in upstate New York, not yet the controversial promoter of an unproven drug he has called the “cure” for Covid-19 — the man whose urging apparently contributed to President Trump’s surprising decision to himself take the drug, hydroxychloroquine.
An Orthodox Jew, Zelenko looks back on his own near-fatal bout with cancer as something of a harbinger for what he sees as his catalytic role in the coronavirus crisis. Instead of opting for the standard treatment, he decided to try an untested cancer drug — one that would later be pulled from the market after being found ineffective in clinical trials — and credits that gamble with saving his life.
Now, he is not only unafraid to buck the American medical establishment in regard to his anti-Covid drug cocktail, he feels almost a religious calling to do so.
“A few months ago, Hashem put an idea into my head — I don’t take any credit for it,” Zelenko, who is known as Zev, said in a video he released last weekend, using a Hebrew name for God.
Zelenko announced Wednesday via WhatsApp video that he was leaving his medical practice in Monroe, N.Y., amid his growing national notoriety and deepening tension over coronavirus politics with officials in Kiryas Joel, the Hasidic enclave that is home to most of his patients. His abrupt exit came just two days after Trump’s nationally televised declaration that he had started taking hydroxychloroquine after receiving a letter about the drug’s value from a New York doctor he did not name.
That evening, I received a WhatsApp message from Zelenko: “This is me,” he wrote, below a video of the president’s comments.
For the past two and a half months, as I have reported on how the coronavirus has affected the Orthodox Jewish community, Zelenko has been a frequent contact. He has sent me his public letters, data regarding hydroxychloroquine, video testimonials from patients and articles and YouTube videos about him, some from far-right media outlets and fringe figures who have spread conspiratorial ideas about the pandemic.
Over the course of our conversations, his confidence in the effectiveness of his regimen has become spiked with suspicion that there are powerful interests that want him to fail.
Zelenko, 46, is matter-of-fact, rather humorless and calm — a calm he says only came to him after narrowly surviving cancer. He is deeply spiritual, like many of his fellow followers of the Chabad Hasidic movement, and sometimes signs off from his videos with the valediction, used by many Chabadniks, that the Messiah should come.
Zelenko titled his 2019 autobiography “Metamorphosis,” and the pandemic has transformed him once again. His prominence as a frequent correspondent of Republican influencers has come at the expense of his ability to treat his beloved yidden — Jews — of Kiryas Joel. He has given interviews to media outlets that amplify conspiracy theories of the pandemic, and has partnered with two German doctors — themselves appalled at the political dimensions of the pandemic in the U.S. — to analyze data from more than 1,000 of his patients.
He said he consulted with health officials and doctors from Latin America, South Africa and Ukraine about his use of a three-drug cocktail — hydroxychloroquine, the antibiotic azithromycin and a zinc supplement — on asymptomatic patients outside of hospital settings.
In mid-April, after Zelenko gave a Zoom seminar to Honduran doctors, that country’s health ministry released treatment guidance for Covid-19 based on Zelenko’s regimen. On April 24, Trump said the president of Honduras had told him that they were seeing “incredible” results with hydroxychloroquine.
Zelenko insists he has been cautious, prescribing the cocktail only to patients at high risk for Covid-19 because of their age or other medical conditions, or those experiencing serious symptoms from the disease. Yet he has drawn outrage for giving outpatient treatment with a regimen that a study from the New York Department of Health concluded was associated with high risk of heart attack among hospitalized patients. A more recent retrospective study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients, released Friday in The Lancet, found that those who received hydroxychloroquine had a higher risk of death than those who were not treated with it. (The study did not include patients who may have been given the drug while already in a critical phase of the disease.)
Like some other doctors treating Covid-19 patients, he has been taking the drug himself since the beginning of the pandemic: Due to his ongoing chemotherapy to prevent cancer recurrence, as well as his missing lung, he is at extremely high risk of dying if he contracts the disease. In order to stay safe, the only people he has seen since March are his wife and their two children.
“The only reason why I’ve put myself out there in the media,” he said in an interview last week, “and I’ve taken tremendous risk both professionally and personally, is because I am 100% sure, and history will prove me right, that this is part of the solution of this global crisis.”
‘Who knows the wisdom of God and his ways’
Zelenko’s family came to the United States from Kyiv in 1977, when he was three, and settled in Sheepshead Bay, a Brooklyn neighborhood popular with Jews from the former Soviet Union. In his autobiography he writes that he was a top student, but grew up socially isolated and feeling empty inside.
A trip to Israel between college and medical school led to a spiritual epiphany, and he eventually became a follower of Chabad. After medical school, he joined Ezras Choilim, the main medical-services provider of Kiryas Joel, a village in Orange County, N.Y., run by the Satmar Hasidic dynasty.
Though his journey to religious observance differed from most of his patients, and he lived not among them but about an hour’s drive away in New Jersey, Zelenko became a respected figure among Hasidim in both Orange County and Brooklyn. After seven years, he was the clinic’s second-highest paid employee, earning $232,000, according to public tax records. He left Ezras Choilim in 2007 and founded his own practice in nearby Monroe, violating a contract with the clinic that he not open a practice within 30 miles of it, according to Kiryas Joel’s longtime town administrator. Though the dispute briefly went before a rabbinical court, Ezras Choilim did not pursue the matter, and many patients followed Zelenko to his new office.
Zelenko became involved in the local chapter of Hatzolah, an Orthodox ambulance-service, as a medical adviser. Joel Petlin, Kiryas Joel’s superintendent, remembered that when Zelenko had cancer in 2018, messages were sent around town encouraging people to say psalms on his behalf.
“It’s very known that he’s a knowledgeable person,” said Abe Muller, one of several of Zelenko’s patients I interviewed. “Thousands of patients in the area of Orange and Rockland county will say the same thing, including Jews, non-Jews, Hasidic Jews, secular Jews, no matter what.”
Zelenko has eight children, six from a first marriage that ended in divorce in 2016, plus a 2-year-old daughter and 9-month-old daughter with his current wife, a psychoanalyst.
Unable to work while undergoing chemotherapy, he wrote his 218-page, self-published memoir, as well as a theological treatise, “Essence to Essence,” which he co-authored with his oldest son and which “describes the metaphysical dynamics shared by science, medicine, psychology, economics, law, and politics.”
Surviving cancer, Zelenko said in one of our interviews, radically rearranged his view of life. He said he now has no fear of man, just fear of God.
“Perhaps — who knows the wisdom of God and his ways,” he said. “But it seems that I somehow ended up being the tip of the spear in one of the worst global crises in human history, two years after I barely survived terminal cancer.”
‘I’m not claiming any miracle cures’
When Zelenko decided in March to begin giving even asymptomatic patients the hydroxychloroquine cocktail, there was little evidence supporting any kind of treatment for coronavirus. Based on his own reading of the limited studies, he decided that the drug — which has antiviral properties and has been used for decades to treat malaria and rheumatoid arthritis — could be combined with azithromycin and zinc to safely keep patients out of the hospital.
“I’m not claiming any miracle cures,” he told me when we first spoke, in March. “But I have observed that early intervention with my above-mentioned regimen seems to have very positive results.”
The unproven treatment was controversial from the start. Some warned of negative side effects — hydroxychloroquine can cause arrhythmia — and others worried that demand for the drug would make it unavailable for people who need it to manage diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, called evidence of the drug’s success “anecdotal,” and said it was best to wait until clinical data could demonstrate its effectiveness before prescribing it widely.
But Zelenko was not alone in experimenting with hydroxychloroquine. Some doctors across the country prescribed the drug for themselves, as prophylaxis. Dr. Joseph Rahimian, an infectious-disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, said that early on he and his colleagues turned to the same drug triumvirate in their desperation to help patients critically ill with Covid-19.
“Zinc has some potential antiviral activity, and hydroxychloroquine is an ionophore, which means it helps zinc get into the cells, and may help zinc’s activity,” Rahimian explained, in reasoning similar to Zelenko’s. “We didn’t have any other options at the time.”
Rahimian’s analysis of those efforts, released earlier this month, found that the addition of zinc helped hospitalized patients who were never admitted to the intensive-care unit get home sooner, though he said that the cocktail’s overall effectiveness would not be clear until formal clinical trials were completed.
Dr. Rosy Joseph, a New Jersey rheumatologist who had been prescribing patients hydroxychloroquine for decades, also began treating presumptive Covid-19 cases with it based on a protocol published by Massachusetts General Hospital.
“In general, I’m quite a conservative physician,” Joseph said in March. “But we give this medication with barely a second thought.”
On March 17, Dr. David Boulware, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, began a clinically controlled study on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating presumptive positive patients outside hospitals. In a recent tweet, he said that patient safety for the study so far has been good. Boulware declined to discuss Zelenko, but in March said that without a study, it would be impossible to know if hydroxychloroquine was actually useful.
“If you give a mostly young, healthy population anything, snake oil even, they’ll get better,” he said then. “So the question is, how do you know it’s actually having any effect?”
But while Zelenko’s treatment had a mixed reception among doctors and researchers, the way he promoted it — and himself — drew a harsh response in his community.
Zelenko first came to prominence among Orthodox Jews in videos warning about the pandemic, spread through the community on WhatsApp. Often filmed on his phone inside his car, the videos feature frank, slowly intoned warnings. “Stop what you’re doing, please, and stay home,” he said in one on March 17. “All we can do now — we can’t stop it — is to slow down its spread, as much as possible.”
Zelenko said in an interview that in early March he tried in vain to get Kiryas Joel’s leadership to shut down the town’s synagogues and schools. The town only canceled in-person Shabbat services on March 20,, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned nonessential gatherings of any size; by then the town’s spiritual leader had the disease, one of 30 confirmed cases.
The day before, on March 19, Zelenko had posted a YouTube video claiming that nine of 14 tests he had just done for coronavirus came back positive, and predicting that Kiryas Joel could be looking at a 90% infection rate, because of its extremely high population density. The video alarmed the both the Hasidic and secular communities and surrounding government officials. In a conference call later that day with local Department of Health officials, Steve Neuhaus, the Orange County Executive, called the video “disturbing,” and said that he had asked Cuomo to consider a containment zone for Kiryas Joel.
By March 23, one copy of Zelenko’s “nine out of 14” video had been viewed more than 67,000 times — on that day, a Hasidic man was refused service at a Toyota dealership near Kiryas Joel, accused of “spreading the virus.” On March 24, town leaders in Kiryas Joel released a letter calling Zelenko “an important and respected health-care provider” but condemning his remarks, and tying them to rising anti-Hasidic discrimination and social-media vitriol.
— Blaise Gomez (@BlaiseGomez12) March 24, 2020
“Every conversation that I was in with people from outside the community, and everything I saw on social media, were pointing to the fact that Dr. Zelenko has said that 90% of the community is or will be infected,” said Petlin, the Kiryas Joel superintendent. “It was an outrageous claim. It wasn’t backed up by any data.” (Kiryas Joel has had 753 confirmed positive cases out of a population of 26,000, according to the most recent data.)
And the outrage wasn’t just local. In a response video shared on Orthodox social-media channels, Dr. Yonah Rubin, a pulmonologist in Boston, called a video from Zelenko touting his regimen “criminally negligent.”
But Zelenko was already looking far beyond the Hasidic community, where some view him as a charlatan and others as a folk hero.
On March 23, he posted to Facebook a letter he said he had sent to Rep. Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, explaining his protocol and saying that, of 500 people treated thus far, none had been hospitalized or died. That evening, Sean Hannity, the Fox News commentator, discussed Zelenko’s letter on his show. The Washington Post reported that Meadows then contacted Zelenko and that the doctor had posted memes on Facebook that minimized the virus.
We found that Mark Meadows, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, contacted Zev Zelenko, the NY doctor whose covid-19 drug plan was promoted by Hannity this week. Meadows told Zelenko his plan was being evaluated. Here are some of Zelenko’s recent FB posts: https://t.co/HsDwdbOjYm pic.twitter.com/Nv78csWmES
— Jon Swaine (@jonswaine) March 26, 2020
Later that week, Zelenko stepped up his campaign to get policymakers interested in his cocktail, sending an email to Trump, Rudy Giualiani and others. “CONCLUSION — TREAT AS EARLY AND AS AGGRESSIVELY AS POSSIBLE IN THE OUTPATIENT SETTING,” it closed, even as health officials like Fauci continued to caution against widespread use of hydroxychloroquine.
“This is a World War III situation — it’s the virus versus humanity,” he told me at the time. “If we were to adopt their approach, there would be an extra million dead people.”
‘Imagine Washington DC is being carpet-bombed’
In March, Zelenko began to make the rounds on conservative talk shows. It began with Sean Hannity, and since then he has spoken to both mainstream and more fringe figures in dozens of interviews. Most share a distrust of medical figures like Fauci, as well as of media portrayal of the pandemic and Trump’s response to it.
He was featured on Giuliani’s podcast, Common Sense, in late March, and said that the two speak regularly. Steve Bannon called Zelenko “a real hero” when the doctor appeared on his podcast, War Room, in April.
“Imagine Washington, D.C., is being carpet-bombed, alright?” Zelenko said on Bannon’s show. “Would it make sense for Dr. Fauci to say, ‘I think we need to study to make sure which bullets work the best — it may take four months, but we need to study it’?” Waiting four months to learn the results of a study on hydroxychloroquine, while patients died, Zelenko said, would be “a crime against humanity.”
Zelenko recently shared on Twitter a profile of himself in The New American, a publication owned by a subsidiary of the John Birch Society, a far-right group. He also tweeted a video about himself from a YouTube account called Old School, which questions why the government might “want us to get sick.”
Zelenko told me that he briefed physicians on a conference-call organized by Dr. Karladine Graves, a member of a conservaitve medical group that has pushed numerous debunked medical theories and who, in an interview with The New American, suggested that Fauci “has nothing to benefit if hydroxychloroquine is approved,” because the drug is a generic, and Fauci has in the past earned money from patented treatments for diseases like HIV.
Zelenko said he has also been in sporadic touch with Meadows, and says he speaks almost every day with Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who has also pushed the president to remove the FDA’s emergency guidelines restricting use of hydroxychloroquine. Johnson’s office did not respond to a voice message requesting comment. The White House did respond to an emailed request for comment.
Zelenko has also given interviews to mainstream news outlets, like The New York Times and CBS, as well as news outlets from Italy, France and Russia.
“He doesn’t care if the lives he’s saving are conservative or Democrat,” said Zelenko’s brother, Frank, who ranked the doctor’s political savvy a 4 out of 10. “He was literally just trying to speak to anyone who would listen to him. He’ll talk to any human that wants to save lives.”
‘The doctor who literally brought the cure’
In mid-April, Zelenko began advertising via WhatsApp that he had “FDA-registered and validated” antibody tests for coronavirus. Around that time, he also told Jerome Corsi, a conservsative commentator and conspiracy theorist, that he had FDA-approval for the tests he was offering.
On April 30, the New York Attorney General’s office issued a cease-and-desist letter to Zelenko, saying that his claim of having an FDA-registered test violated consumer-protection statutes, because the claim was false. His tests, officials said, came from Lenco Diagnostic Laboratory, and not from the four labs whose tests were FDA approved at the time. A spokeswoman declined to say whether the letter resulted in an investigation.
Zelenko’s FDA-approval claims also drew scrutiny from a federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice, Aaron Zelinsky, to whom Corsi, the conservative commentator, accidentally sent an email meant for Zelenko. The prosecutor then requested all of Corsi’s communications with Zelenko. (A lawyer for Zelenko told The Post at the time that his client had not been contacted by law enforcement.)
Zelenko lowered his profile after those incidents, not publishing videos on YouTube or circulating them through WhatsApp — until last weekend.
In an emotional English-and-Yiddish video message addressed to Kiryas Joel residents and distributed through WhatsApp on Sunday, Zelenko Zelenko lashed out at the village’s political leadership, blaming them for bringing law-enforcement scrutiny and wider backlash against him.
In the video — which Zelenko did not upload to YouTube, and has not shared on Twitter — he accused Joel Mittelman, the chief executive of his former employer, Ezras Choilim, of instigating the attorney-general inquiry, and Gedalye Szegedin, the town administrator, of leaking the cease-and-desist letter over social media. He accused the men of trying to destroy his medical practice, now run by a provider called CareStier Health.
Mittelman wanted revenge “for the fact that I didn’t die and that I continue to provide quality healthcare together with CareStier, to the yidden in Kiryas Joel,” Zelenko said in the video. “That takes away business from him. It’s in his interest, and the interest of Gedalye Szegedin, to try to destroy my reputation.”
The video showed Zelenko at his most grandiose, and it was the first time I had heard him yell. He refers to himself in it as “the doctor who literally brought the cure for this terrible disease” and says the “jealousy and desire for money” of town officials’ was itself the source of the pandemic.
Zelenko said his March video predicting that 90% of Kiryas Joel would become infected was only meant to be seen by a select few of his patients, and that Szegedin had leaked it. He also accused the men, along with Mayer Hirsch, a major Hasidic developer in the area, of being behind a 2018 Department of Health investigation, which he said had cost him $70,000 — an investigation he had never mentioned in our many conversations.
In an interview, Szegedin denied that he or Hirsch or Mittelman had roles in any of the incidents Zelenko mentioned.
“We’re adamantly, unequivocally denying and rejecting those accusations, and we are consulting with professionals on options for a libel proceeding,” Szegedin said.
In an email, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health said it could not comment on, or confirm or deny, active investigations. The Department’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct lists no disciplinary action taken against Zelenko during the course of his career. Zelenko did not respond to my request to share documentation substantiating his claim of an investigation.
In the video, he also placed the blame for Kiryas Joel’s Covid-19 deaths — he said there have been 14 — at the feet of the three men and Ezras Cholim, because they did not listen to his calls to shut the town down earlier in the pandemic.
I spoke to a Satmar man who lives outside Kiryas Joel and believes it was his online complaint with the attorney general’s office, filed on April 20, that led to the investigation into Zelenko’s claims that his antibody tests were FDA registered. The man, a patient of Zelenko’s, spoke on the condition of anonymity because, he said, his reputation would be severely damaged if it were revealed that he reported another Jew to secular authorities.
“He’s very reputable to most people,” the man said. But asked if he believes that Zelenko is responsible for much of the anti-Hasidic backlash in the region since the beginning of the pandemic, he said, “Probably.”
Petlin, the town’s superintendent, agreed that Zelenko “clearly cares for his patients, and he really does want their best health.”
“But,” he added, “the downside of some of his pronouncements has been to cast this cloud over Kiryas Joel that was never intended, but clearly has an impact.”
In his video decrying the Kiryas Joel leadership, Zelenko has said he didn’t need the town anymore, and could now find work anywhere in the world. But in his farewell address his defiance had melted into clear exhaustion and sadness. “It’s with a broken heart I have to say this,” he began. “After speaking to my family and my mashpi’im” — religious advisers — “and thinking about what I want for the future, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to move on.”
Yet early Friday morning Zelenko sent me a Change.org petition: in less than 24 hours, nearly 1,000 people with Hasidic-sounding names had signed onto “Kiryas Joel asks Dr. Zev Zelenko: Please Stay With Us.” Many of the comments thanked Zelenko for saving their life or the life of a family member.
“The regime targeting and destroying you proves what a great doctor you are,” wrote one signee.
‘Just common sense’
Zelenko, like so many of us, has developed a new routine in this era of social-distancing. He wakes at 4 a.m. and heads to a privste office he has rented near his home, where he first returns calls to the various countries he says he is working with: Peru, Nicaragua, Brazil, Ukraine. Then he studies Talmud with a partner via video chat, has breakfast, and starts checking labs and seeing patients remotely beginning at 9 a.m.
He said he returns home around 6 p.m., and his wife makes him shut off the phone. He doesn’t tell her about his day, and decompresses by playing with their 9-month-old daughter.
“The amount of death and suffering that I’ve seen, heard of, had to deal with in the last two months is — I haven’t fully processed it, and I try not to, because it’s emotionally overwhelming,” he said.
I asked where the office is. Zelenko said he couldn’t tell me, for personal-safety reasons.
“Death threats, online posts, just common sense,” he said. “If you think about it, my actions inadvertently but nevertheless have potentially affected two very powerful interests.”
Zelenko said that he was referring to the Democratic Party and the pharmaceutical industry. He explained that, because his regimen is based on generic drugs, it runs counter to the interests of big drug companies, and he believes its success would vindicate Trump, who was an early endorser of his theories.
“I was also advised by certain very high, well experienced and educated people that I need to be cautious,” he said. I asked who, and he would not specify.
Zelenko is also suspicious of Google, both because it has taken down some of his videos, and because an article from The Times that he considers damaging lands at the top of its search results for his name.
Frank Zelenko, who lives in New Orleans, but does some patient outreach work for Zelenko’s clinic and has helped Zelenko arrange contacts with some foreign countries, has watched his brother’s ascent with some worry, and defends his suspicion.
“He’s getting a lot of pressure, and a lot of scrutiny, and people are lobbing all kinds of horrible things about him,” Frank said. “I guess the human mind begins to wonder, what’s going on? And you start to think about, what’s the reason, what’s behind this? And then there are all kinds of possibilities.”
While he has largely dismissed the protocols of the medical establishment, Zelenko has welcomed its interest in his regimen. Earlier this month, St. Francis Hospital, in Roslyn, N.Y., began a clinically controlled study of outpatients treated with Zelenko’s regimen, one that Zelenko posted on social media. “Dr. Zelenko’s results have added significantly to the findings of others around the world who have used these medications to treat people with COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the hospital’s network, Catholic Health Services, wrote in an email Thursday. “These efforts have inspired us to do this study.”
He is also working with two German doctors who do pharmaceutical research on a forthcoming review of the efficacy of his treatment. It would be the first observational analysis of outpatient treatment with hydroxychloroquine. Zelenko said that he is analyzing data from more than 1,000 patients who were treated with his three-prong cocktail, all of whom had confirmed cases of Covid-19. (Only one of his patients died from the disease, he said — a man who didn’t complete his course of the hydroxychloroquine regimen.)
The doctors — Roland Derwand and Martin Scholz — had independently hypothesized that hydroxychloroquine, combined with zinc, could be an effective outpatient treatment, and, in the course of publishing their initial paper on the subject, connected with Zelenko. They said that the analysis, which they expect to be published in June, shows high levels of safety for the treatment.
“You need a study at the end. But in a pandemic you need to take into account all the evidence you can,” Derwand said in a joint interview with Scholz. “He did not harm patients. He helped a lot of patients.”
Zelenko, a clinician new to the timelines of analyzing and publishing medical studies, had first told me to expect the study around the end of April. In anticipation, I told Zelenko I wanted to do an in-depth article on his journey through the pandemic. He was receptive, and later that day we spoke for an hour. We planned for more interviews, but other news came up. We continued messaging; he shared the file for his autobiography, and, Monday evening, confirmed that he was the doctor Trump had mentioned when talking about taking the drug.
But two days later, after I published an article about his departure from Kiryas Joel, Zelenko soured on me. I thought he would want to explain his decision, but instead he sent a voice note saying he would no longer be responding to my messages. He said the message was “completely off the record,” but then said I could do whatever I wanted with the recording.
“You publicize internal feuds, or disagreements, or whatever, in the middle of a global pandemic, instead of focusing on important issues,” he said. “I’m extremely disappointed in you.”