Four years ago, Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre joined forces with a Florida neuroscientist to promote an experimental drug — a nasal spray designed to quickly treat brain injuries from a concussion.
Favre, a major investor in the company, touted the substance on podcasts, radio interviews and national television, including on NBC. And he did more than evangelize, court records show — he successfully lobbied Mississippi state officials who granted the company $2.1 million in federal welfare money that was intended to help poor families.
The payment was illegal, state officials allege in a lawsuit — part of a huge Mississippi welfare misspending scandal that has tarnished Favre’s reputation.
But beyond that, experts say, it was a bad investment by the nation’s poorest state. Concussions are a huge problem in youth, college and professional sports, but as of today there is no evidence the experimental drug Favre promoted does anything to treat them in humans, according to a review of claims by the company.
The company that is now trying to bring the drug to market, Odyssey Health, appears to be on shaky financial ground, according to public filings. Experts in neuroscience and drug development say its promise to conduct human trials of the drug in Mississippi — supposedly an economic development benefit — appears unlikely to ever be fulfilled.
“You’re better off buying a lottery ticket,” said David Maris, a New Jersey-based financial analyst who specializes in pharmaceuticals and who examined financial statements for NBC News. “It’s destined to be a zero.”
Favre, whose lawyer did not respond to requests for comment, has continued to tout the drug, most recently on a podcast in August saying, “My role in this is more to raise awareness, funding and trying to get this passed and helping people.”
“It has been laborious and we have had a lot of doors shut in our face,” he added, “but we keep trucking along, so that’s really my passion is to see this drug through.”
Favre also expressed gratitude to his supporters in a recent Facebook post last week, “in lieu of the recent allegations,” adding, “Trust me, the truth will come out in time.”
Based on public filings, Odyssey Health, the publicly traded company that now controls the experimental drug, has less than $1 million on hand, Maris said, adding that none of the key executives involved have ever brought a drug to market.
Maris said it could take $100 million to conduct the requisite clinical trials, but based on his review of public filings, he said he believes it’s doubtful that PRV-002, as the drug is called, will ever reach that stage. As of now, it has survived a Phase 1 study in Australia, which was designed to make sure it isn’t harmful.
“I think it’s the wrong team, I think it’s the wrong product, and I think that they don’t have enough money to make it happen,” Maris said. “So, no, I wouldn’t have invested in 2018, and I wouldn’t invest today.”
Dr. Majid Fotuhi, a neurologist and neuroscientist based near Washington, who specializes in treating concussions and other brain injuries, examined public patent records, animal studies and other related documents for NBC News. He said he did not find enough evidence of the drug’s impact in animals to justify large scale clinical trials in humans.
“There is no magic pill for concussion,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any drug that can reverse all the symptoms of a concussion.”
Soccer star Abby Wambach, who had also been promoting the drug, walked away in September, saying she had learned “disturbing new information” without elaborating.
“Since I genuinely believed this company was being transparent about a product that could spare the next generation of athletes from the severe impact of concussion injuries that I endured as a professional athlete, I am profoundly angry, disappointed, and saddened by what I learned today,” Wambach added in a statement at the time.
Odyssey Health then announced that, to avoid “distraction,” it was dissolving its “sports advisory board,” which had included Favre, fellow Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner and other famous athletes.
Odyssey did not respond to requests for comment, but said in that same Sept. 30 news release that it “has never directly or indirectly received money from state or federal government sources to fund the drug development.”
The company that sold Odyssey the rights to the drug, Prevacus, had received the state money and remains part of a joint venture with Odyssey, public records show.
Favre’s lawyer, Eric Herschmann—a former Donald Trump adviser who famously told the House Jan. 6th Committee that he had tried to stop a plan to prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 electoral votes—did not respond to requests for comment.
Favre, who is being sued by Mississippi, has consistently said that he did not know the money he was seeking from the Mississippi Department of Human Services—the state welfare agency—was welfare money.
As NBC News has previously reported, Favre was paid $1.1 million in welfare funds—a sum he has since repaid—and he also helped to secure $5 million to build a volleyball complex at a state university where his daughter played on the team.
Six people have been charged in what state and federal officials call a massive fraud scheme, including the former director of the state welfare agency, who is cooperating with the FBI and federal prosecutors.
Five of the six have pleaded guilty. The sixth person was referred to a program that offers the opportunity to avoid criminal prosecution.
Favre has not been charged, and there is no indication he’s a subject of the investigation.
Favre is among 38 defendants in a civil lawsuit by the state seeking to recoup the welfare money, including the funds devoted to the volleyball facility and the unproven concussion drug.
The Florida neuroscientist who developed the drug, Jake VanLandingham, told NBC News he had no idea that the Mississippi state funds injected into the company came from federal welfare money under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, program known as TANF.
“If I had known, I would have never taken it,” he said.
But VanLandingham said he disagreed with the conclusions of the experts consulted by NBC News, and said he was planning to help Odyssey push forward to develop the drug.
“We are hopeful,” he said “Most drugs fail along the way and we have been proud of ours. So far we have good animal data and we are proud of our work.”
Mississippi’s state auditor, Shad White, uncovered the misuse of funds in a 2020 audit that went largely unnoticed, aside from reporting by Mississippi Today, in the early days of the pandemic. In an interview, White said that even if the drug held exceptional promise, the deal should never have happened.
“My advice is to go find a government grant that can legally be spent on that, and if you can’t find that, don’t do a backroom meeting where you cut a deal to get a pool of funds that should be helping the needy,” White said.