NEW YORK CITY — In early October, Kris Kobach, Kansas’ former Secretary of State, and Daniel Drake, a Wichita-based venture capitalist-turned-CEO, made a sales pitch to Kansas legislators. The duo wheeled in what looked to lawmakers like a “refrigerator” — a shiny metal box Drake called a “revolutionary” device that would “kill COVID” and bring “several hundred jobs back to Wichita.”
This project was a collaboration between the Kansas Reflector and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The students who led this reporting were part of a fall investigative journalism program, which is part of the Masters of Science degree at the journalism school. Questions about the reporting can be directed to the Kansas Reflector, or Columbia adjunct professor Jessica Huseman.
During their pitch, Drake explained that his company, MoJack Distributors, had developed a line called “Scent Crusher” that uses aerosolized ozone, a tri-oxygen molecule, to sanitize hunting and sports products, “only to realize that we weren’t here today to be able to get hunters or sportsmen to be better athletes or better hunters, but to kill COVID.” He told lawmakers the sample product next to him was part of a new line called “Sarus Systems.”
The former, controversial secretary of state and his new business partner made sweeping claims before the Legislature about the efficacy of Sarus System’s products, but experts say the claims were misleading. After a two-month investigation, Columbia Journalism School was unable to verify the vast majority of their statements.
There is no evidence Sarus Systems has made material steps toward rehoming hundreds of jobs to Kansas, and shipping records show products are currently being manufactured in China. There is also scant evidence their machines, or ozone in general, can safely eliminate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. And while the pair have hyped the products’ popularity, claiming a three-month backlog and international interest, we were unable to verify any purchases — from the state of Kansas or otherwise.
Sarus Systems’ products are designed to be easy to use: The user fills a water tank, drops in one “optimizing agent” tablet containing ozone, turns the machine on, leaves the room and waits as a vapor disinfects everything from personal protective equipment to entire rooms — in just 90 minutes. When first interviewed in October, Drake said his product was superior to commonly used household cleaners certified by the Environmental Protection Agency because “our product actually kills COVID, SARS-CoV-2, everywhere, everywhere, it can touch. So it kills the underneath of the desk, top of the desk, the underneath of the chair, the air in the room, the cracks and crevices in the keyboards. It does a hundred percent super deep clean job that even a human couldn’t do.”
As proof, he pointed to a third-party lab test on the Sarus Systems website done by MRIGlobal, a research institute based in Kansas City, Missouri. The study is heavily redacted and sports a red “CONFIDENTIAL” stamp on the first page. Even the name “Sarus Systems” and its product were redacted — though both Drake and Kobach have publicly said the company paid for the test. The duo gave the Kansas Legislature an unredacted copy of the study, which was obtained by Columbia Journalism School.
MRIGlobal tests products for clients under criteria defined by the clients themselves, according to those familiar with the lab’s work. The study was not designed to prove that these products effectively “kill COVID” in real-world environments, as Drake and Kobach have claimed. In fact, the unredacted version shows the products were tested in extremely controlled rooms and that “stainless steel coupons” — small pieces of stainless steel exposed to the virus — were tested for sanitization.
Experts who reviewed the unredacted study were unconvinced by the results.
“Ideally, this study would be one small part of a much longer, more complicated investigation, but the surfaces, materials, or ventilation of a typical hospital room or clinical work area are not replicated here,” said UCLA Emergency Medicine physician Mark Morocco. “I doubt that any health care entity would consider such a limited study sufficient to consider utilizing such a system (as Sarus’).”
In other words, the study makes no suggestion that the product would be effective on porous surfaces, such as a desk or a chair, as Drake claimed.
The study claims that ozone can sanitize the room at a rate of 99.8% — a figure too low to kill the virus under EPA standards. The study failed to address the health risks of ozone, which, according to the EPA, include lung damage, throat irritation and other respiratory ailments. The EPA considers ozone generators pesticidal devices, and as such, they have not reviewed the safety or efficacy of such products as a means for SARS-CoV-2 sanitization.
On its webpage “Ozone Generators That Are Sold as Air Cleaners,” the EPA recommends — with italicized emphasis — that consumers use “proven methods of controlling air pollution. These methods include eliminating or controlling pollutant sources, increasing outdoor air ventilation and using proven methods of air cleaning.” They do not recommend the use of ozone for these purposes.
Originally, Sarus Systems’ website indicated it was “an establishment registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” But the agency confirmed it had not reviewed the products and was not certifying any ozone technology for COVID-19 response.
After being presented with a detailed set of questions related to the company’s claims about the EPA, the website was changed. It now reads, “Sarus Systems designs and distributes products produced by manufacturers registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.” Drake did not explain the change in his statement, saying he stood by his claims and did not feel the company had been misleading.
Drake’s existing ozone line, distributed under the name Scent Crusher, “effectively eliminates odors” on hunting gear. Sarus Systems’ products, which include sanitizing totes, chests, closets and room sanitizers for commercial and residential use, work similarly. However, while Scent Crusher’s products cost, at the most, $349.99, Sarus’ cost up to $15,000, according to a presentation Kobach and Drake made to the Jackson County Board of County Commissioners on Sept. 14.
Drake would not offer specific details on the difference between the two lines in order to explain the cost difference, only saying in a statement that Sarus Systems’ products “utilize several extra processes to further atomize and accelerate the ability to eliminate virus in a larger everyday setting.”
Kobach joined Sarus Systems following his loss for the Republican senate nomination to now-Sen. Roger Marshall last summer. He said he was “intrigued” by Drake’s pitch for a product that would, in Drake’s words, “kill COVID.” In an interview, Kobach described his role as “providing assistance for Dan in terms of pointing out where to go … navigating government contracting and decision-making in allocating resources at the state level in the post-COVID world.”
Kobach has a fraught history in Kansas. Before his failed Senate bid, he unsuccessfully ran for governor while serving as secretary of state. As secretary, he caused intense controversy by pushing harsh voter integrity measures, including a requirement that voters show documented proof of citizenship. That law was overturned in federal court in 2018. Kansas’ recent attempt to revive the law by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court was unsuccessful.
Drake claims he had the idea to modify his Scent Crusher products for SARS-CoV-2 disinfection last January, when he was working with the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department.
“They were using our prototypes on another product,” he said in an interview. “And they called me and asked, ‘Hey, would your system kill COVID?’ Probably,” Drake said.
But Ellen Linaac, the department’s administrative and finance division chief, said they had no record of ever working with Drake. In fact, the department outsources all of its PPE cleaning to Coastal Environmental Services in Huntington Beach, Linaac said. A Coastal Environmental Services spokesperson said the company has no relationship with Drake.
Drake would not say who in the department he’d spoken to. In a statement, he said “there are thousands of people in the emergency network of LA” and mentioned, without offering more specificity, a “test site” in which unnamed emergency management employees offered him encouragement.
While Kobach claimed before legislators that Sarus Systems had a three-month backorder, and Drake claimed in interviews that the Minister of Health in Brazil, the Minister of Tourism in the Dominican Republic, and the corporate owners of Marriott Hotels had expressed interest, none of the reported buyers returned calls for comment. Moreover, though the duo presented the product at two local Kansas sheriff’s offices, in Jackson and Shawnee counties, neither office confirmed its interest. When asked to confirm purchases, Drake said “we do not comment on specific interest or orders for our products,” despite having named alleged customers in previous interviews.
There is also no public evidence that Sarus Systems is “close” to bringing any jobs to Kansas, as Drake claimed to legislators in September.
“We’re based in Wichita,” Drake said in an October interview. “We’ve got a plan in place to replace our manufacturing (in China) with sub-assembly stuff here. (Kansas is) taking out-of-work aircraft workers and access capacity in the aircraft manufacturing business to create these products. So, I think (Sarus Systems) can shift those back this way. … We’re running through a host of local manufacturers with a combination of some state opportunities to do that here in Kansas.”
Shang-Jin Wei, professor of Chinese business and economy at Columbia Business School, said this plan would not be cost-effective. Given how much cheaper low-skilled labor is in China, the “only practical” way to move hundreds of jobs to Kansas would be to relocate only the technology-intensive side of production to the United States — with the extensive aid of government incentives. Wei said the government is unlikely to provide these incentives while unemployment remains at its current low levels.
COVID-19 itself would also likely prevent the plan. Even though COVID-19 has temporarily created a high unemployment rate, Wei said, the new factory wouldn’t be much help as most factories have had to reduce production to prevent the spread.
“Once COVID is gone,” Wei said, “presumably all the factories already in the states will resume their normal production, mak(ing) it less obvious for the local government to subsidize a potential production like this.”
Closing out the meeting with Kansas legislators eager to break for lunch, Drake requested to make one final point.
“We are close to bringing several hundred jobs back to Wichita,” he said. “So even though we’ve produced a lot of this in Asia, this is meant to be done right here.”
Drake would not offer more specifics about his plan to bring jobs to Kansas, only saying that he’s “spent time” working on a manufacturing plan, and that “selecting good manufacturing sites with the proper workforce” is “a process.”
Macy Bayern, Alaa Elassar, Israel Fontoura, Susannah Hills, Joseph Lovinger, Alix Publie and Hayley Zhao contributed reporting.