Vladimir Zelenko (November 27, 1973 – June 30, 2022) was an American family physician. He was born in Kyiv. At the age of three, his family moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, New York City. He received his medical degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2000. He was an Orthodox Jew.
As an author, he was known for promoting a three-drug combination of hydroxychloroquine, zinc sulfate, and azithromycin as part of an experimental outpatient treatment for COVID-19 that he called the Zelenko Protocol. He also promoted unfounded medical advice, conspiracy theories, and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccination.
On March 23, 2020, Zelenko published an open letter to U.S. president Donald Trump where he claimed to have successfully treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients with a five-day course of his protocol. Zelenko’s treatment protocol quickly gained notoriety, with several right-wing media figures and various Trump administration officials promoting it, including Rudy Giuliani and then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, despite cautionary messages from health experts.
Early life and education
Vladimir “Zev” Zelenko was born to Larisa (Portnoy) Zelenko and Alex in Kyiv (then, part of Soviet Ukraine), on November 27, 1973. His father was a taxi driver and his mother worked at a fur factory before working as a computer programmer at Morgan Stanley. His family moved to the U.S. when he was three years old, and settled in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York City.
Zelenko earned a Doctor of Medicine degree in 2000 from the State University of New York at Buffalo and subsequently specialized in family medicine.
COVID-19 treatment and vaccine claims
On March 21, 2020, Zelenko posted a video to YouTube and Facebook addressed to U.S. president Donald Trump, in which he claimed to have successfully tested an experimental treatment for COVID-19 on hundreds of patients with coronavirus-like symptoms. He described the treatment as a three-drug combination consisting of the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine, the antibiotic azithromycin, and zinc sulfate, and posted an open letter to Trump with similar claims two days later. At the time, ongoing research was being conducted by various groups, including the World Health Organization, to determine the efficacy of using hydroxychloroquine and/or azithromycin to treat COVID-19. In March 2020, Alex Kasprak, a science writer for Snopes, noted that since Zelenko did not describe his study design nor publish any data, his claims were unverifiable.
In July 2020, the month after FDA withdrew emergency use authorization of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, Zelenko coauthored a retrospective study of 141 COVID-19 outpatients who were prescribed a combination of zinc, hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin. Zelenko’s study compared the outcomes of treated patients to untreated patients in his New York community, with hospitalization rates of 2.8% for treated patients and 15.4% for untreated. Based on the study, Zelenko said that his combination therapy “resulted in five times less hospitalizations and deaths”. Higher quality studies disproved Zelenko’s claims, finding that zinc, hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin did not improve serious outcomes of COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health ultimately recommended against the use of zinc, hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin in treatments for COVID-19.
The Satmar Hasidic community in Kiryas Joel, New York in Monroe, New York, where Zelenko was a long-time community physician, disputed Zelenko’s claims about the potential infection rate in the community, which prompted Zelenko to shut down his office after nearly 20 years.
In December 2020, Twitter suspended Zelenko’s account for violating rules against “platform manipulation and spam”.
In 2021, Zelenko began selling a dietary supplement called Z-Stack, which contained zinc and several vitamins. Fact-checkers noted the lack of scientific support for Zelenko’s claims of Z-Stack’s ingredients boosting immunity, killing the virus that causes COVID-19, and preventing hospitalization.
In January 2022, Zelenko claimed that children are more likely to die from COVID-19 vaccines than from COVID-19.