Eric Umansky

Here's why rapid COVID tests are so expensive and hard to find

This was first published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

A few weeks ago, a ProPublica reporter decided to test his kids for COVID-19. They had the sniffles, and with a grandparent set to visit he wanted to minimize the risk that they were infectious.

This was the problem that quick, cheap COVID-19 tests were supposed to help fix. No need to go to a clinic or wait days for results. Just pick up a pack of tests at a local pharmacy whenever you want, swab your nose and learn within 15 minutes if you're likely to pass the virus along.

So the ProPublican went to his neighborhood CVS, hoping to buy the required pack of two for $23.99. They were out of stock. Then he went to Rite Aid. They didn't have the tests either. Then Walgreens, then another CVS. All out of stock. The only supplier with a few tests to offer was his sister, who happened to have a few tucked away.

It's a familiar experience for many Americans. But not for people in Britain, who get free rapid tests delivered to their homes on demand. Or France, Germany or Belgium, where at-home tests are ubiquitous and as cheap as a decent cappuccino.

So why are at-home tests still so pricey and hard to find in the United States?

The answer appears to be a confounding combination of overzealous regulation and anemic government support — issues that have characterized America's testing response from the beginning of the pandemic.

Companies trying to get the Food and Drug Administration's approval for rapid COVID-19 tests describe an arbitrary, opaque process that meanders on, sometimes long after their products have been approved in other countries that prioritize accessibility and affordability over perfect accuracy.

After the FDA put out a call for more rapid tests in the summer of 2020, Los Angeles-based biotech company WHPM, Inc. began working on one. They did a peer-reviewed trial following the agency's directions, then submitted the results this past March.

In late May, WHPM head of international sales Chris Patterson said, the company got a confusing email from its FDA reviewer asking for information that had in fact already been provided. WHPM responded within two days. Months passed. In September, after a bit more back and forth, the FDA wrote to say it had identified other deficiencies, and wouldn't review the rest of the application. Even if WHPM fixed the issues, the application would be “deprioritized," or moved to the back of the line.

“We spent our own million dollars developing this thing, at their encouragement, and then they just treat you like a criminal," said Patterson. Meanwhile, the WHPM rapid test has been approved in Mexico and the European Union, where the company has received large orders.

An FDA scientist who vetted COVID-19 test applications told ProPublica he became so frustrated by delays that he quit the agency earlier this year. “They're neither denying the bad ones or approving the good ones," he said, asking to remain anonymous because his current work requires dealing with the agency.

FDA officials said they simply want to ensure that rapid tests detect even low levels of the virus, since false negative test results could cause people to unwittingly spread the disease. They blame the test shortages on an absence of the kind of sustained public funding that European governments have provided. Without it, manufacturers have lacked confidence that going through the FDA's process would be financially worth the trouble.

“Where we have seen tests truly coming to the marketplace, the big difference has been government investment," said Dr. Jeff Shuren, head of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, which authorizes tests. “Folks will come and do larger volumes because you're supporting production, which can also help drive down prices."

Both the Trump and Biden administrations banked on vaccines putting a swift end to the pandemic, holding off on large-scale purchases of COVID-19 tests that Americans could keep in their medicine cabinets.

As a result, one of the few companies that has successfully gotten tests authorized and onto shelves — Abbott Laboratories — has dominated the market. Its BinaxNOW tests account for around 75% of U.S. retail sales, according to data from NielsenIQ, even though they're sold here for several times the price of the same Abbott tests in Europe.

In the past two months, the Biden administration has takensteps to make home tests more widely available. As more tests are authorized and more purchase orders are signed, pharmacy shelves are starting to fill up.

But that still may not be enough, as manufacturers scramble to build supply chains capable of delivering the tens of millions of tests per week that public health experts estimate will be necessary to keep schools and workplaces open and safe. Employers charged with testing their entire workforces have found themselves in bidding wars in order to secure adequate supply.

As with the slow ramp-up of lab testing at the beginning of the pandemic, the delays have come with a cost.

“It feels like in one place we're in a rocket ship and in another place we're on training wheels," said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., contrasting vaccines and testing. Schrier, a former pediatrician who has been pushing the agency to authorize more rapid tests, said, “You can't count on the free market during a pandemic."

The U.S. testing response has been troubled from the beginning of the pandemic, seesawing between caution and overcorrection.

In February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took weeks to develop its own test, which later turned out to have falsely flagged other viruses, allowing the one that causes COVID-19 to gain a foothold in the U.S.

Then the FDA became more permissive, allowing privately developed tests that detected antibodies from previous infections to enter the market after only cursory review. When dozens of the tests turned out to be inaccurate, the FDA prohibited their use.

Meanwhile, the FDA grappled with thousands of applications for “emergency use authorizations," or EUAs. The process for EUAs is less involved than for full approval but still requires extensive clinical and real-world evaluation. Most EUAs issued have been for PCR tests, which are highly sensitive — meaning they can detect even low levels of the virus — but typically take days to return results.

Another form of diagnostics, antigen tests, can return results quickly and cheaply, similar to a pregnancy test. They're less sensitive, but usually good enough to determine whether someone is infectious.

Recognizing the potential market for antigen tests, companies began submitting more EUA applications in late 2020. But the FDA was wary about this type of test, mostly warning of the danger of false negatives in the earliest stages of infection.

FDA officials were particularly concerned about allowing tests to be administered outside the purview of a trained health care provider. “To mitigate the impact of false results, all Covid-19 tests authorized to date have been made available only by prescription, so that clinicians can interpret results for patients," wrote Shuren and his deputy Dr. Tim Stenzel in an October 2020 column in The New England Journal of Medicine.

That cautious approach persisted all through the winter and early spring, despite rising agitation from the White House and Congress around the availability of tests.

“I actually have been saying that for months and months and months, we should be literally flooding the system with easily accessible, cheap, not needing a prescription, point of care, highly sensitive and highly specific" tests, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said under questioning from Schrier in a hearing on March 17.

Stenzel, a microbiology Ph.D. who in 2018 became director of the office that authorizes diagnostic tests, holds the most day-to-day power over whether a test gets approved. He worked at biotech companies for most of his career before coming to the FDA, leading some to wonder if those prior relationships played a role in determining which testmakers became the most important players in the market.

Among Stenzel's former employers were Abbott and the San Diego-based Quidel Corporation, the first two companies to sell self-administered, prescription-free COVID tests in large volumes.

Quidel CEO Doug Bryant said in a promotional video that in early 2020, the company wasn't planning on designing a COVID-19 test until he got a call from a trusted contact at the FDA. That contact was Stenzel, the agency confirmed.

Quidel and Abbott had their at-home tests approved about a year later. On an earnings call, Quidel's Bryant said it was “the most significant inflection point for our company." In the third quarter of 2021, Quidel made $406 million from its various COVID-19 tests, blowing past Wall Street's expectations. “There is no denying Quidel has put itself in position to win big in COVID-19 testing," wrote an analyst with the firm William Blair. Abbott made $1.9 billion globally on its COVID-19 tests.

Ethics disclosures show that Stenzel holds no Abbott or Quidel stock, and it's been several years since he worked at either company. But Stenzel's ties to the two major test manufacturers and the slow pace of authorizations for other companies' at-home tests drew a letter from an anti-monopoly think tank, the American Economic Liberties Project, calling for an investigation.

Stenzel denied any improper conduct, and pointed out that his office issued recalls to both Abbott and Quidel for problems with other COVID-19 tests. He also noted that the office designed relatively easy-to-follow templates for new types of COVID-19 tests to help companies that hadn't dealt with the FDA before.

“We understood that there were a bunch of companies that were new to the FDA, and we provided them an immense amount of support, saying, 'This is how you do it,'" Stenzel said.

The FDA has said it “engaged with more than 100 test developers" about making diagnostics. The agency declined to provide the names, citing confidentiality concerns.

Quidel acknowledged the administration had reached out, but didn't comment on its discussions with Stenzel, while Abbott said it had spoken to “many people across multiple areas of government" early in the pandemic.

Most companies don't have the same familiarity with the people adjudicating their applications.

Nanōmix, a diagnostics designer based in Emeryville, California, developed a rapid test with the help of a federal grant and submitted it to the FDA in February. In early June, an FDA reviewer sent back a list of questions, giving Nanōmix a deadline of 48 hours to respond. The company couldn't provide answers that quickly, so it was sent to the back of the line.

“We start development on a set of guidance," said Nanōmix CEO David Ludvigson. “Then they change the guidance after we're done, and expect us to have conformed to their revised guidance."

The FDA has been particularly circumspect with more novel approaches to testing, such as an olfactory test that detects the common COVID-19 symptom of loss of smell. The agency's reviewers deprioritized an application for the scratch-and-sniff card even though it had been proven to stem transmission, said inventor Derek Toomre, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

Other companies, big and small, have been tripped up by FDA demands that seem minor in view of the urgency of the situation.

For example, the biopharmaceutical giant Roche told ProPublica that it submitted a home test in early 2021, but it was rejected by the FDA because the trials had been done partly in Europe. The test had comparedfavorably with Abbott's rapid test, and received European Union approval in June. The company plans to resubmit an application by the end of the year.

A smaller company, which didn't want to be named because it has other contracts with the U.S. government, withdrew its pre-application for a rapid antigen test with integrated smartphone-based reporting because it heard its trial data from India — collected as the delta variant was surging there — wouldn't be accepted. Doing the trials in the U.S. would have cost millions.

The FDA reviewer who quit this May described what the delays looked like from the inside. With a background in virology, he could evaluate the hundreds of pages in an application within a few days. But then, something strange happened: The applications would go nowhere for months as higher-up officials seemed paralyzed by indecision.

“I could easily process dozens of them, but I ended up with one or two in my queue constantly. They would stay there forever," he said. “I had a lot of free time."

His experience is reflected in an outside review of the EUA process conducted by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which found that the median number of days it took the FDA to issue a decision on original applications rose to 99 in November 2020 from 29 the previous April, with denials taking substantially longer than authorizations. The assessment also found “limited understanding in the test developer community on how to appropriately validate a diagnostic test."

Stenzel said that any delays were a consequence of careful review, and that the office received many applications that were incomplete or had shoddy data.

“If we have questions or concerns about a test, they will not be prioritized the same way a test will be that we have fewer questions about," Stenzel said. “Those will be cycled to the front, and it makes good public health sense to move forward those tests that are most likely to pass muster and get authorized. ... There are always good reasons for why something is delayed."

European countries generally maintain similar guidelines for the accuracy of tests, but are less particular about how trials must be conducted. For example, test developers are allowed to limit their samples to subjects with high viral loads, for whom antigen tests perform better.

The FDA, however, remains concerned that the typical method for measuring viral load isn't consistent, leading to the risk of overestimating the accuracy of the test. Advocates of the European approach point out that being able to identify an infection in its earliest stages won't help much if a PCR result doesn't come back for days, so even a less sensitive at-home antigen test is valuable — especially since people are much more likely to be able to access them in the first place than PCR tests.

Europe's differing approach has resulted in 39 rapid self-administered antigen tests being authorized by the European Union, according to a database maintained by Arizona State University. The U.S. has authorized 12, nine of which are available without a prescription.

A consultant who works with smaller companies trying to get products through the FDA — and who asked for anonymity in order to protect his clients who have business before the agency — said he understands the argument that more robust applications from companies with larger manufacturing capacity should go first.

The problem with this logic, he said, is that it's now fall and the pandemic is ongoing, with the possibility of new variants still unknown. “And it's not like you can flip a switch with the Defense Production Act and you're going to get magically much more capacity," he said. “We needed a 'thousand flowers bloom' approach. We needed everyone and their brother pitching in with these tests."

The federal government could also have buttressed the supply of rapid COVID-19 tests by purchasing large quantities from companies able to manufacture them in bulk, and then providing them to consumers at low or no cost.

Shuren and Stenzel recommended as much a year ago in their New England Journal of Medicine column. They wrote that the U.S. government should have authorized a handful of tests and had the CDC contract with those manufacturers, rather than trying to vet thousands of diagnostics, which they called “an inefficient use of resources."

European countries essentially did both, authorizing dozens of rapid antigen tests to be sold while contracting with a few companies to provide millions of them free of charge to individuals. The U.K., for example, allocated $50 billion over two years to set up a national test and trace program that delivers rapid tests to anyone upon request. It hasn't worked perfectly or averted lockdowns, but advocates argue it's better than the U.S. alternative of rapid tests being nearly impossible to find.

For Germany's free testing program, which ran from March through October, the government initially bought 800 million rapid tests and 200 million home tests from a shorter list of manufacturers that had undergone additional vetting. The country also required the unvaccinated to present fresh test results for most activities that involve congregating with other people.

Although the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on testing — estimates of the total vary, given the number of funding streams — self-administered tests are usually not covered by insurance, and there is no centralized system for distributing them.

In the late winter and early spring of 2020-21, the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy point-of-care tests, but they were mostly reserved for use in facilities like nursing homes and military bases. The economic stimulus bill that passed in March allocated $10 billion for screening in schools, which don't usually rely on home tests. Then, the focus shifted to vaccines.

In May, the CDC leaned hard into the message that vaccines were almost completely protective, mitigating the need for frequent testing. Manufacturers took that as a bad sign for testing volume. Abbott ramped down manufacturing of its popular home test.

At that time, Stenzel seemed satisfied with the availability of tests. “We believe we're doing a great job at meeting the public health need at this point," he said in June on his weekly town hall call with test developers.

With no long-term government purchasing programs in place, companies had less interest in getting new tests through the pipeline, making it difficult for even promising concepts to get commercial pickup. With the help of a federal grant meant to accelerate COVID-related technologies, Iowa State University professor Nigel Reuel developed a mailable paper test in April, but he said he's not sure it'll be worth it to take the step of clinical trials.

It's really hard, Reuel said, for a company to “say we're going to invest tons in this when we don't know what the long-term market for it is."

All this meant that when the delta variant hit in July, not only were PCR appointments suddenly hard to get, but home tests became vanishingly rare and reliant on a single manufacturer: Abbott, whose BinaxNOW test peaked during late summer at 90% of the market in retail over-the-counter sales. That dipped somewhat in September, when a few additional companies were able to get on shelves.

On an earnings call in October, Abbott CEO Robert Ford said the company anticipated dropping its price to maintain its market share, but wouldn't if competition didn't make it necessary.

Asked why its rapid tests are abundant and cheap in Europe and scarce in the U.S., Abbott spokesperson John Koval chalked it up to Europe's public support, both in its regulatory system and through government funding.

“It has taken more than a year for the American public, scientific experts and academia to accept the important role of rapid testing in the U.S.," Koval said. “Overseas, that was not the case, because the value of rapid testing was better understood prior to the pandemic."

Sentiment in Washington has been changing. In late October, Sen. Dick Durbinsent a letter urging “appropriate flexibility in regulatory standards" for at-home tests. And over the past month, the White House has thrown more weight behind rapid testing, announcing $1 billion in purchase commitments for home tests. Recognizing the difficulty of quickly securing the necessary volume of raw materials for tests, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded another $560 million to 13 companies for test components like swabs, pipette tips, packaging and other production capabilities.

Still, some of the government's efforts haven't added up to much.

In September, the White House announced that Walmart, Amazon and Kroger would sell COVID-19 tests at cost for the following three months. But no subsidy was involved, and for most of the first two months, the retailers were often out of stock. Tests available online are often sold by third-party distributors, and Amazon and Walmart said they don't control those prices, so they remain high.

At CVS, which didn't participate in the agreement with the White House, a Quidel kit — which costs $12 wholesale — still sells for $23.99.

Same with Rite Aid, but when one of us visited a store in Brooklyn this Wednesday, employees said they hadn't received a shipment of BinaxNOW kits in a month, until they got seven the day before. “They immediately sold out. And that was limiting it to one per person," said Roxanne, a pharmacy technician who declined to give her last name.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is moving to take on more responsibility over the validation of tests. Last week, the National Institutes of Health announced a new program to do much of the work for test developers, mitigating the back and forth around what's good enough. That resembles the process run by some European governments, although Shuren said the U.S. will still maintain tougher standards.

All of those steps would have been more helpful when experts began calling for them a year ago.

“We need to have a rethinking, during and after this pandemic, to talk about the role of testing," said Mara Aspinall, who co-founded the Biomedical Diagnostics program at Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions. “It's a fundamental piece of our fight. And that was realized too late."

Do you have information about COVID-19 testing that we should know? Email or message her on Signal at 202-913-3717. Email or message him on Signal at 917-687-8406.

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News At Any Cost

At a glance, the office of Tijuana's weekly newspaper, Zeta, gives just a hint of the kind of publication that is produced inside. It sits on a residential street in a middle-class neighborhood, and only a small plaque seems to distinguish it from the rest of the block's modest family homes. Look closer and a theme emerges: the building is set back from the street, with much of it obscured by a concrete wall; no first-floor windows are visible; and the front door has heavy grating.

Watching the paper's editor and publisher, J. Jesús Blancornelas, arrive for work dispels any doubts. A caravan of three vehicles pulls up, two Suburbans and a blacked-out Chevrolet Caprice. Out pile fourteen serious-looking men -- soldiers in the Mexican Army -- bristling with M-16 assault rifles, shotguns, copious clips of ammunition, and body armor. That level of protection would be surprising for a journalist in Baghdad, let alone for one in a quiet neighborhood thirty minutes from downtown San Diego.

The precautions are for good reason, though. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a significant majority of illegal drugs destined for the U.S. -- marijuana, cocaine, and heroin -- transit through Mexico. Tijuana, host to one of the world's most heavily traveled border crossings, is a strategic chokepoint. In the first four months of this year, there were 163 homicides in Tijuana, many drug-related.

Local journalists know how dangerous it is to shine a spotlight on the trade and the corruption it fuels among Mexican officials. Nine reporters have been killed in northern Mexico in the past decade, with the perpetrators enjoying what the Committee to Protect Journalists calls a "nearly perfect record of impunity." In such an environment, Zeta stands out, both for the work it has produced and the costs it has incurred.

Since Blancornelas started Zeta twenty-five years ago, it has been challenging the nexus between drug lords, local officials, and business leaders. As a result, Blancornelas has been wounded in an assassination attempt, and two top Zeta editors have been killed, the most recent one in June of last year.

The deaths have had a curious effect on Blancornelas. He evinces a determination to continue, but a regret for ever having started. It's a mix of emotions that can't be made any simpler by the fact that many journalists in Tijuana see Blancornelas not as a hero, but as obsessed and vainglorious. Meanwhile, the man Blancornelas believes is behind at least the first murder at Zeta is not only still free, he's Tijuana's new mayor.

"If my colleagues hadn't been killed," says Blancornelas, "I would have retired a long time ago. But I can't now. I need to fight and to clarify what's happened. That's my purpose."

We are in Zeta's conference room, where the windows look out onto a wall inches away. Blancornelas is primly dressed in a blue blazer and pants, trailed by a whiff of cologne. He speaks in precise, measured tones and, at least with strangers, smiles little.

Blancornelas did not start out as a muckraker, or dream of being one. "I was a sportswriter," he says. "But when I arrived at the paper that had hired me in Tijuana they said they only had an opening for politics. Thirty-five years later here I am."

It has been a circuitous path. With his assignment to cover politics, Blancornelas quickly gravitated toward covering the corruption endemic in the system. As Mexico's press slowly retreated in recent decades from its traditions of self-censorship and domination by the state, Blancornelas was alternately promoted and forced out of a series of papers. In 1977, frustrated after an owner had quashed one of his columns, Blancornelas and a colleague, Héctor Félix Miranda, co-founded the independent newspaper ABC. Blancornelas quickly found himself facing questionable charges of fraud, and he fled to the U.S. In 1980, he and Félix started Zeta. Though the paper was based in Tijuana, Blancornelas worked in exile in the San Diego area. Two years later, after Mexico inaugurated a new president, the charges were dropped and Blancornelas returned to Tijuana.

In the early 1980s, Tijuana was breaking free of its traditional role as a party town for American sailors and teenagers. At the center of the change was a drug cartel known as the Arellano Brothers. They were stunningly violent -- victims were often not just killed, but tortured and dismembered -- and for years effectively controlled Tijuana, living openly and opulently. Unlike many local papers, Zeta did not shy away from the Arellanos. One cover story in 1985 announced, THE MAFIA INVADES BAJA CALIFORNIA. In it, the paper peeled away some of the mystery surrounding the gang, explaining how it arrived in Tijuana, the local officials on the take, and even their addresses. In response, Blancornelas says, the government bought every copy of Zeta on the street. Zeta responded by printing another batch, this time with CENSORED! splashed across the top.

The paper was harassed from the start -- shots fired at the office, a break-in where nothing was stolen but the papers' files were rifled through. Then, eight years after its founding, Zeta suffered its first casualty.

Zeta's cofounder, Félix, chronicled life in Tijuana in an irreverent column, which he signed "Félix the Cat." It was a sort of Page Six for the drug-running and high-society crowd, and loaded with innuendo.

One of Félix's favorite targets was Jorge Hank Rhon, a local businessman who was elected mayor in August 2004. Hank Rhon was the son of one of Mexico's most prominent politicians, and came to Tijuana to run the city's storied race track, Agua Caliente, which the DEA has long suspected of money laundering. He was also an eccentric, owner of a private zoo with an estimated 20,000 animals, and the host of lavish parties.

Hank and Félix were initially friends, and Félix was invited to Hank's parties, presumably so he would provide favorable coverage. But the two had an unexplained falling out, after which Félix persistently needled Hank in his column, dubbing him (in a reference to Hank's alleged appetite for cocaine) the "Abominable Snowman."

In April 1988, not long after their friendship disintegrated, Félix was murdered. Two assailants were caught and convicted a few months later. Both worked in security at Hank's race track, and one was Hank's chief bodyguard. They acknowledged that they had hid at the track after the murder, and according to coverage in Zeta, cashed a $10,000 ticket while there. Hank, who has consistently denied any involvement, reportedly paid for his chief bodyguard's defense.

Blancornelas recalls the investigation, or lack of one. "They arrested two people," he says, "but never the intellectual author." Every week since the killing, Zeta has run an ad: "Jorge Hank Rhon, Why did your bodyguard kill me? -- Héctor 'Gato' Félix Miranda."

The attack, and Zeta's response to it, would become part of a pattern. Blancornelas launched his own investigation, often scooping the police. At times, though, it became unclear which was more important, the journalism or the investigation itself. Soon after the killing, one Zeta cover announced, THERE WERE FOUR. Blancornelas says that at the time he knew of only three suspects but decided to publish the wrong number in the hope that other papers, driven by competitive zeal and a desire to prove Zeta wrong, would get the police to divulge more information.

In the years following the assassination, Zeta's coverage continued to center on Félix's murder, Hank, and, particularly the Arellano gang. In 1997, Blancornelas wrote a piece connecting one Arellano henchman to the murder of two Mexican soldiers. Four days later, two cars cut Blancornelas off as he was on the way to work and fired roughly 200 bullets into his car. Blancornelas was hit four times but survived because his driver, who died, shielded him.

Since the attack, Blancornelas travels only between home and work, and is never without his platoon of bodyguards. "I don't go to the movies. I don't go to restaurants," he says. "I go back to my house Friday afternoon and stay until Monday morning. I don't leave for anything."

His reporting and sacrifices have made Blancornelas something of a cause célèbre. He's been profiled in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, and has won a raft of U.S.-based awards. The general picture painted is of a lone vigilante in a sea of corruption.

It's an image that irks many in the local press corps. "Blancornelas wants to think he's the only honest journalist in Tijuana, and it's just not that way," says Dora Elena Cortes, an award-winning journalist who has received her share of threats for reporting on narco-trafficking. "He's an excellent reporter. But he's also a magnificent PR man."

The distaste seems to go both ways. When I name a handful of journalists I plan on contacting, Blancornelas says that most aren't worth my time. One local reporter, who preferred not to be named, talks of respecting him but is irked by what the reporter perceives as Blancornelas's mix of haughtiness and paranoia. "The closer you get to Blancornelas, the more you see him as a human being," says the journalist. "He's arrogant and not generous with other reporters. But he's also brave and has given his life to a cause. Both perspectives are true."

Other papers report on the cartels, but rarely do they dig as deep as Zeta. Last year, for instance, the paper published a piece on the murder of a former state attorney, alleging complicity between the Arellanos and the local police. Francisco Ortiz Franco, the reporter who wrote the article, was so concerned about the fallout that Blancornelas agreed to put his byline on it instead.

Blancornelas is sixty-eight. He had been talking about finally stepping back and handing Zeta to the paper's younger journalists, which includes his son. Then last June, Ortiz, the forty-eight-year-old writer and editor whom Blancornelas tried to protect, was shot to death in his car, with his two children in the back seat unhurt. Ortiz had just begun writing about drugs. Weeks before he was killed, he had published a piece naming Arellano men who, with the apparent aid of somebody in the attorney general's office, had procured police IDs. Ortiz had also recently been hired by a Latin American press association to take another look at the Félix case.

The murder brought international attention -- and a federal-level investigation from Mexico City, a first. But other trends continued. Despite the scrutiny the case has brought, the investigation has languished; there have been no arrests. Suspicions abound. Blancornelas says the state attorney called about the killing about ten minutes after it happened. But the police, whose headquarters were just two blocks away from where Ortiz was shot, did not arrive for half an hour.

And again, Zeta seems to have spearheaded the investigation. It named several Arellano gunmen it said were responsible, as well as a number of police officers it said worked as lookouts. "We know who killed Ortiz; we've published it," says Blancornelas. "But the police haven't done anything, not even investigated to dismiss our reporting."

Such a lack of accountability is typical in Tijuana, and fuels a culture of rumor and innuendo. When drug traffickers assassinate a local official, the presumption usually isn't that he was a good guy who paid the price, but that he was in the pocket of rival traffickers. (Some local observers who have complained about Blancornelas implied just that about him, but provided no evidence.)

Still, Blancornelas takes a somewhat flexible view of what constitutes journalism. One of the first issues of Zeta after Ortiz was killed was headlined, THE SUSPECTS. Among the three named in the article was Jorge Hank Rhon, who at the time was in the middle of his mayoral campaign. Neither the police nor the investigators from the Committee to Protect Journalists have uncovered evidence linking Hank to Ortiz's murder. Asked about it, Blancornelas acknowledges he has no evidence pointing to the mayor. "We only said 'suspects,'" he says. "It was up to the police to go from there."

In a city where the truth is almost impossible to ferret out and the risks of trying are high, it's no surprise that the man who stubbornly seeks answers to the mysteries is a bit of a zealot.

Giving a tour of Zeta's newsroom one Monday morning, Blancornelas pokes his head into an empty office. He points, a bit defensively, to a poster on the wall: "It's better to lose your story than your credibility." In the office next door is a bank of computers, and Blancornelas steps up to one. "This was Ortiz's computer," he says. "We don't let anybody use it now."

Blancornelas insists that he's not on a crusade. Few in Tijuana believe it, and his habits undercut his case. "Seven years after I was left for dead, I often feel good," he says. "I have my grandchildren. But other people have died. I can't sit. I work Friday, Saturday, Sunday. All the time." Has it been worth it?

"No. I wish I had just continued to write about sports."

The Devil and Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich-Ellis, the environmental crusader whose story graced movie screens a few years ago, launched her latest campaign last spring. Along with Edward Masry, the lawyer she still works for, Brockovich-Ellis (who changed her name after remarrying) made a stunning allegation: Oil wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School were spewing a carcinogen -- benzene -- and causing cancer among students, staff, and alumni.

After meeting a young graduate who has had two types of cancer, and hearing about the wells on campus, Brockovich-Ellis headed out to test the air around the school in November 2002. "I was just sitting in the bleachers," she told parents gathered for a meeting last March at the Beverly Hills Hotel, "and we got benzene readings that were at very alarming levels -- at least five times higher than on the 405," a freeway. The result of this contamination, she continued, was Hodgkin's disease at sixteen times the expected levels among alumni.

Brockovich-Ellis didn't offer the school district or city officials her test results, nor did she invite officials to the meeting. Instead, she went to the media. In February 2003, a month before the meeting with parents, she gave an exclusive interview on the test results to CBS's Los Angeles affiliate, KCBS. Titled "Toxic School?" the segment began, "If your child goes to Beverly Hills High School, you should pay specific attention to this story, because there is growing evidence that going to school, sitting in classrooms, and especially exercising on the play fields could have your child breathing toxic fumes." Brockovich-Ellis told KCBS that after she first detected high benzene levels, six subsequent tests produced the same results.

The case had the perfect mix of ingredients -- wealth, celebrities, and the whiff of scandal. (Beverly, as the school is known, has graduates ranging from the actor Nicolas Cage to Monica Lewinsky, and has been earning royalties from the oil wells for decades.) A mini media frenzy ensued, with coverage from Good Morning America to The New York Times to newspapers in New Zealand. "Beverly Hills is not all Botox, faux-Spanish mansions and imported sports cars," wrote the august Economist magazine. "It also has cancer clusters, and these have become Erin Brockovich's latest crusade."

Journalists noted that there were two sides of the story: Brockovich-Ellis said there was a problem, while the city and the wells' owner, a company named Venoco, said there wasn't. The New York Times's coverage was typical, offering dueling quotes while leaning toward Brockovich-Ellis's position: a celebrity school's students say oil wells are making them sick, announced a June 17 story.

But was there, in fact, a problem?

One reporter -- a former stand-up comedian working for one of the lowest-profile publications in Los Angeles -- decided to find out. In the process she helped uncover what appears to be a Hollywood heroine's campaign of deception.

Norma Zager, editor-in-chief of the Beverly Hills Courier, a free weekly, doesn't fit the image of a muckraker. Zager, who is fifty-seven, often wears a suede cowboy jacket with tassels, is (endlessly) cheery, and looks, well, like the contented Jewish mother that she is. (She has two grown children.) "I'm usually the biggest pussycat reporter around," says Zager. "I get my feelings hurt if somebody calls up to complain about one of my stories."

Zager, who briefly worked as a reporter in Detroit after college, spent about fourteen years doing stand-up comedy routines in Los Angeles and Las Vegas before deciding in 1999 to return to journalism. She found work as a reporter for the Courier, and about a year ago was promoted to the top spot. (It wasn't a huge jump; the Courier has two full-time editorial employees.) The paper typically covers A-list charity balls and small-town happenings. bh park rangers share experiences, it announced recently. Zager's duties range from editing and reporting, to writing a column on celebrity homes.

The Courier's newsroom isn't impressive. The day I visit the low-slung, nondescript building, Zager is simultaneously writing a story, digging out court files for me to peruse on the Brockovich-Ellis case, and chatting on the phone with what seems to be a suitor who invites her to a party hosted by Lee Iacocca (she declines).

Soon after KCBS's report about toxins at Beverly, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis called their March meeting for parents and other potential claimants. Zager attended and quickly grew skeptical. Government regulators had tested the air around Beverly and found no significant amounts of benzene. When parents asked about the discrepancy, Zager recalls, "Masry and Brockovich started blustering and telling people to shut up. So I said to myself, �Okay, we've got a scam on our hands. Now what do I do?'"

Zager says she decided to learn everything she could about oil wells, benzene, and cancer clusters. Meanwhile, independent and government experts looked into the case. Toxicologists, epidemiologists, and oil regulators all dismissed Brockovich-Ellis's and Masry's assertions as quackery: the wells weren't leaking, the air was relatively clean, and rates of Hodgkin's disease around the school were normal. Indeed, despite reporters' "balanced" coverage, no independent scientist backed up the allegations as credible. (Regulators did cite Venoco for two potential violations -- an antipollution unit had insufficient filters and the wells had, on occasion, vented natural gas, a process for which the company insists it had permission. Neither potential violation significantly affected benzene levels and both were settled in October.) In any case, several studies have shown no link between oil wells and Hodgkin's. Los Angeles has thousands of wells and none has been linked to any cancer. "Is there any evidence that benzene at the levels found at Beverly causes cancer? No," says Thomas Mack, chief of the epidemiology division at the University of Southern California's medical school. "You're just as likely to get cancer from your car stereo."

A few news outlets did emphasize that officials didn't buy the claims. USA Today, for instance, headlined: Lawyers: beverly hills high school's a hazard; although officials doubt campus' oil wells pose cancer risk, parents are close to panic. But Zager's digging went beyond that and uncovered something more surprising: Brockovich-Ellis's own data didn't support her contentions. Despite requests from parents and school district officials, Brockovich-Ellis and Masry refused to release their data until the city subpoenaed them and a judge ordered them to comply -- a fact only Zager noted in her stories.

When the data sets were finally handed over, they showed that despite Brockovich-Ellis's claim that she repeatedly found alarming levels of benzene, nearly all the readings were normal. As Zager reported -- again, nearly alone among reporters covering the story -- the highest benzene reading was still below state regulations and was contradicted by another sample Brockovich-Ellis took at the same time that showed no measurable benzene. Michael Tuday, head of research at the lab Masry used to compile the data, was quoted in the Courier as saying, "When you're doing sampling, you don't want to base health-risk decisions on a single sample result; that would be irresponsible." (Zager says that after she got that quote, Masry told Tuday to stop taking calls from her.)

As the Masry and Brockovich-Ellis evidence crumbled, their cancer-cluster claims continued to be cited in the press. "When I have three hundred cancers staring me in the face and an oil-production facility underneath the school, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two fit together," Brockovich-Ellis told People magazine in May 2003. Masry told The Associated Press that the school's cancer rate was twenty to thirty times the national average.

Once again, the two refused to document their claims until a judge ordered them to comply. Zager sat in on the court hearings and heard a lawyer for Masry's firm admit that, in fact, his side did not do an epidemiological study and has no data on rates at all. Zager's headline the next week: Masry's attorney admits in court no study done by them to establish cancer rates at bhhs.

Zager acknowledges that her writing isn't always the most graceful or easy to follow. She also has an obvious advantage over other reporters in that her paper is focused on Beverly Hills. But her reporting has gone beyond just being there.

Curious about how Brockovich-Ellis arrived at her cancer numbers, Zager got copies of the injury claim forms Masry and Brockovich-Ellis filed with the city. She found that at the same time the two were publicly referring to 300 cases of cancer, they had filed only 216 damage claims, of which only ninety-four were actually for cancer. The other injuries consisted of everything from insomnia to "tingling sensations."

Remember the KCBS report that first raised concerns about toxins in the air? It relied almost exclusively on the Brockovich-Ellis and Masry allegations. As Zager first reported, the producer for that story, Claudia Bill-de la Pena, serves on the Thousand Oaks city council with Masry. Along with his wife, Masry donated money to Bill-de la Pena's election campaign. "If you are looking at a connection between the City Council and my producing, it is not the right route to go from a journalistic standpoint," Bill-de la Pena told the Courier.

"Norma works really hard, and she's honest," says USC's Mack, who is less impressed with other journalists' efforts on the Beverly story. "Reporters tend to rely on balance because they're unsure of themselves or not knowledgeable enough to put something in context. So they make it a �he said, she said' rather than going to a third or fourth source to resolve or try to understand the apparent conflicting information."

"There's nothing murky about what I print," says Zager. "There's no innuendo. I just print facts. I print the test results." That habit has landed Zager "number one on Brockovich's and Masry's enemies list," she says with glee. "I met some new lawyers for Masry one day and decided to introduce myself. So I went up to them and said, �Hi, I'm Norma Zager. Better known as the Devil.'"

Eric Umansky writes the "Today's Papers" column for

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