A prominent doctor who gained fame for conducting tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests in the early days of the pandemic in a hard-hit California desert community has pleaded guilty to misbranding cosmetic drugs, authorities announced on Thursday.
Dr. Tien Tan Vo admitted as part of a plea agreement that the injectable botulinum toxin and lip fillers used in his Imperial Valley clinics between November 2016 and October 2020 were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to federal prosecutors.
Vo, who was widely admired for his tireless efforts to combat the virus, confessed to procuring most of the cosmetic drugs from a “med spa” operator in Mexicali, Mexico, who illegally smuggled them into the United States without proper declaration.
He acknowledged receiving $100,767 for services performed with these unapproved drugs and devices.
As part of the plea deal, the 47-year-old doctor has agreed to repay the earnings and pay a fine of $201,534. He is also obligated to provide restitution to his victims.
There was no response when attempts were made to contact Vo’s offices on Thursday night.
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, motorists queued for hours at Vo’s clinics in California’s Imperial County, which had one of the state’s highest infection rates and overwhelmed hospitals. This region along the Mexican border is predominantly Latino and low-income.
At the time, Alex Cardenas, a former mayor of El Centro, praised Vo as a “rock star.” Vo’s two clinics conducted over 27,000 COVID-19 tests in the first five months of the pandemic, with a positivity rate ranging between 25% and 30%.
Vo, who immigrated from Vietnam as a teenager, went above and beyond by delivering meals and checking on patients at their homes during the pandemic.
“They really need a doctor here,” he remarked in 2020. “They’re not very hard to please. They chat with me. They text me every day.”
Vo is scheduled to be sentenced on November 16 for receiving misbranded drugs and for being an accessory to the smuggling of unapproved drugs from Mexico. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison.
Andrew Haden, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, emphasized the importance of patients being able to trust their doctors, stating, “Through this prosecution, we are protecting patients from unapproved and potentially unsafe drugs and will always seek to thwart those who would exploit patients for financial gain.”