America’s Frontline Quacks

January 4, 2022

As we have explored in previous posts, science denial is sometimes driven by political leanings, as is the case, for example, for extreme libertarians who object to all government regulation and global agreements. In other cases, it may be driven by a profit motive, as is true of the industry of epidemiology-busters built up to defend toxic products. During his presidency Donald Trump established symbiotic relationships with multiple efforts combining the two motives; he emboldened, celebrated and profited from politically motivated scams. For a nonscientific example, Steve Bannon saw his political support for Trump’s anti-immigration stance as an excellent opportunity to defraud people who donated to his GoFundMe campaign to build a phony private border wall along the US-Mexico border. Bannon was indicted for criminal fraud but then pardoned by Trump.

In this post we describe the efforts and some of the players in one of the most egregious science-denying scam groups that sprang up in response to Trump’s political needs and with financial backing from the right-wing advocacy group Tea Party Patriots. The group calls itself America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), but more appropriate names would be America’s Flimflam Doctors or America’s Frontline Quacks. Although its membership includes people with medical licenses, they seem more devoted to hypocrisy than to the Hippocratic Oath, to snake-oil hype than to HIPAA. They have contributed mightily to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, and then have convinced the many people duped by such misinformation to send them money for unprofessional (and sometimes non-existent) telehealth consultations and prescriptions for phony cures. They have misrepresented their own experience and expertise. And one of them has recently been politically rewarded by appointment as the Surgeon General for the state of Florida.

The AFLDS group bears considerable responsibility for promulgating the strange and mutually contradictory set of beliefs about the pandemic that has led to increased probability of death from COVID among Trump supporters than among non-supporters, a trend we will document below. We briefly summarize those erroneous beliefs here, referring the reader for details to our previous posts debunking them:

  1. COVID is not a serious disease and the COVID-19 death count has been greatly padded by the medical establishment (debunked here);
  2. Neither mask-wearing nor social distancing help to mitigate the spread of the virus (debunked here);
  3. The COVID vaccines are unnecessary, “experimental” and most likely harmful, perhaps even developed for nefarious purposes of government control (debunked here);
  4. COVID-19 can be cured by drugs previously approved for quite different purposes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – namely, hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin – despite robust clinical trials that show no such effectiveness (debunked here and below in this post).

In section I of this post we describe some of the background and activities of AFLDS, and in section II we profile three of the most prominent members of that group.

I. America’s Frontline Doctors: A Profit-Making Medical Scam


In the Spring of 2020, less than a month after he had finally, reluctantly agreed to support shelter-at-home orders and lockdowns to temper the spread of COVID, Trump needed political and pseudo-scientific support to back up his renewed claims that the pandemic would soon vanish and it was time to end the lockdowns imposed by many states and “reopen” the US economy. There was no support for this view from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Trump’s COVID advisors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, or any of the available data about the ongoing, deadly pandemic surges. No states had yet come close to meeting the White House’s own published guidelines for a phased reopening.

The need to recruit “extremely pro-Trump doctors” to support Trump’s view was discussed in a May 11, 2020 conference call among several leaders of the conservative advocacy group CNP (Council for National Policy) Action and Mercedes Schlapp, a senior staffer in Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign organization. The campaign obviously considered an economic rebound to be more critical to Trump’s electoral chances than a rapid reduction of COVID spread within the U.S. Their interests thus aligned with those of the Save Our Country Coalition, “an alliance of conservative think tanks and political committees formed in late April [2020] to end state lockdowns implemented in response to the pandemic.” CNP Action was a member group of that coalition, along with the FreedomWorks Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Tea Party Patriots.

One of the first “extremely pro-Trump doctors” recruited in response to that conference call was Simone Gold, who will be profiled in section II of this post. On May 19 she was the lead signatory on a published open letter to Trump which claimed that “it is impossible to overstate the short, medium, and long-term harm to people’s health with a continued shutdown.” In a May 20 video she stated: “We’re all acting as though there’s a huge medical crisis. I’m not sure that it’s front-page news.” This was her take on a pandemic that (as of Dec. 15, 2021) has now claimed 800,000 American lives. She insisted that the real issue is that “our constitutional rights are being trampled on right and left.”  On June 24, 2020 Gold launched an Arizona non-profit organization named the Free Speech Foundation (and later renamed as the Common Sense Foundation), with financial support from the Tea Party Patriots. A primary project of the Free Speech Foundation was the assembly of doctors-for-hire to form AFLDS. Gold was recently indicted for her role in the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

The AFLDS group burst onto the public scene with a July 27, 2020 press event on the steps of the Supreme Court (Fig. I.1). During that event, one after another white-coated AFLDS members gave brief remarks claiming that shutdowns and mask-wearing were both ineffective and unnecessary in controlling the pandemic. They claimed that so-called infectious disease experts, media personalities, and especially pharmaceutical companies were hiding from the public the fact that a COVID cure already existed in the form of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) – a drug previously approved by the FDA to treat malaria, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases – in combination with zinc and azithromycin.

Figure I.1. America’s Frontline Doctors appearing in front of the Supreme Court building on July 27, 2020 in a still photo from a video live-streamed by Breitbart News. Simone Gold is at the microphone and Stella Immanuel is standing behind her to the right of Gold.

The video of the AFLDS press conference went viral (although it was removed the following day from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube), with a strong boost from Trump himself, who referred to them, and specifically to “star witness” Stella Immanuel, as “very respected doctors.”  Stella Immanuel will also be profiled in section II of this post, but is by now best known for her insistence that many medical conditions are caused by “demon sperm” transmitted during sexual relations people have in their dreams with witches and demons. She and the other AFLDS members were chosen for their strong support of Trump’s own pet theories, and hardly for their esteem within the medical science community or for views supported by clinical research. Nor did they have any particular expertise in treating COVID, despite their claims to the contrary. As noted by MedPage Today on July 29, 2020, “none of the most vocal members [of AFLDS] have practices that would place them on the actual front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some don’t currently practice at all. Two of those appearing at the Monday event are ophthalmologists, one of whom is no longer licensed.”

As we have pointed out in an earlier post, large, randomized clinical trials of HCQ “have indicated that it is not effective in coronavirus disease.” For example, the large RECOVERY study (see results in Fig. I.2) funded by the U.K. government concludes: “In patients hospitalized with COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine was not associated with reductions in 28-day mortality but was associated with an increased length of hospital stay and increased risk of progressing to invasive mechanical ventilation or death.” These results led the FDA on June 15, 2020 – more than a month before the AFLDS press conference – to revoke its earlier Emergency Use Authorization for HCQ in the treatment of COVID-19. Nonetheless, during the July 27 event, Stella Immanuel likened doctors who refuse to prescribe HCQ for COVID to “good Germans who allow the Nazis to kill the Jews.”

Figure I.2. Results of the large-sample, randomized RECOVERY study on hydroxychloroquine efficacy for preventing COVID-19 deaths in the U.K. HCQ treatments did not reduce mortality vis-a-vis usual, non-HCQ care.

Misinformation and scams:

The clinical trial results and the FDA revocation did not keep AFLDS from seeking to profit, as we detail below, from prescriptions of HCQ for misinformed seekers of “miracle” COVID cures. Later, after the COVID-19 vaccines began to be authorized, AFLDS became a headquarters for some anti-COVID vaccine conspiracy theories, and turned their profit-seeking primarily to addressing the growing demand for ivermectin among anti-vaxxers. Although the Free Speech Foundation was originally registered in Arizona as a non-profit, it has failed to file required disclosures or annual reports. And as we will discuss below, AFLDS certainly seems to be a profit-making organization, as gleaned from a hack of the computer records of some of its partner organizations.

The AFLDS website contains the following disclaimer: “No AFLDS information should be construed in any way as a blanket anti-vaccination statement on the part of any AFLDS member-physician, the nonprofit, or its affiliates.” However, they are as much a source of misinformation about COVID vaccines as the “disinformation dozen” we profiled previously on this site. They recommend that the COVID-19 vaccines be discouraged or strongly discouraged for all people under 70 years of age. As shown in Fig. I.3, those that followed these AFLDS vaccine recommendations have been far more likely to die from COVID than vaccinated individuals, and AFLDS is at least partially responsible for those excess deaths.

Figure I.3. The number of daily COVID-19 deaths recorded in the U.S. from October 2020 to July 2021. Following FDA approval of Emergency Use Authorizations for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December 2020 (vertical blue line), the death rate has been dominated by unvaccinated individuals.

A video of Simone Gold’s January 2021 lectureThe Truth About the COVID-19 Vaccine,” delivered to a packed, maskless church audience in Tampa, Florida, has been viewed well over a million times on the video-hosting site Rumble after it was removed by YouTube. In it she refers to the vaccines as an “experimental biological agent whose harms are well documented” and which has been rushed to the market with “brand new technology.” She tells her listeners they should be especially suspicious of the new COVID-19 vaccines because of the (irrelevant) failure of previous vaccines, using completely different technology, attempted years earlier for quite different coronaviruses. She emphasizes that animal trials have not been performed, while misrepresenting the well documented results from large-sample phase 3 human clinical trials, which led to the FDA approval, first on an Emergency Use Authorization, but subsequently on a full approval basis. And she seems blissfully unaware of the irony of her dismissal of those large-sample, controlled, randomized clinical trials for vaccines, in contrast to the deeply flawed early studies that AFLDS relies on to justify HCQ and ivermectin as COVID “cures.”

Vaccine misinformation is a central part of the AFLDS business model, allowing them to rake in money by prescribing unapproved and ineffective drugs. Ivermectin is a drug approved by the FDA for use to treat or prevent parasites in animals or, at very specific doses, to treat humans for parasitic worms, head lice and some skin conditions. Like HCQ it attracted rapidly growing attention (see Fig. I.4) among desperate COVID sufferers on the basis of some early anecdotal evidence of success. Many of the early clinical studies reporting ivermectin results were poorly controlled, statistically biased or flawed in other ways. The most dramatic result reported a reduction in COVID death rates by 90% from ivermectin treatment, but the paper was soon withdrawn because of “ethical concerns.” Specifically, other researchers found multiple causes for concern “including dozens of patient records that seemed to be duplicates, inconsistencies between the raw data and the information in the paper, patients whose records indicate they died before the study’s start date, and numbers that seemed to be too consistent to have occurred by chance.” The FDA states that “Currently available data do not show ivermectin is effective against COVID-19. Clinical trials assessing ivermectin tablets for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 in people are ongoing. Taking large doses of ivermectin is dangerous.” More colloquially, the FDA addressed the many people taking ivermectin doses intended for animals in a tweet: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”

Figure I.4. The spikes in U.S. weekly prescriptions of the unapproved, “alternative” medicines hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, driven by customers anxious to prevent or treat COVID-19 but distrustful of advice from reliable medical and government sources and of COVID vaccines.

AFLDS took advantage of the enhanced reliance on virtual health consultations during the pandemic to partner with the telemedicine site SpeakWithAnMD established by right-wing conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi to sell prescriptions to HCQ. On the AFLDS website visitors are invited to pay $90 up front to schedule a virtual consultation with “AFLDS-trained physicians.” Users should not expect to get that money refunded if the consultation never occurs, as is frequently the case, or to have it covered by health insurance. The website informs users that “our physician services are available for payment only because we still have a free market which is allowing you to buy something you want for a fair price. We have received thousands of emails from non-Americans who would pay exorbitant fees to stand where you freely stand: the ability to purchase something useful. So we do not answer any emails from people asking us about this service being covered by insurance. We are outside the insurance system specifically because the insurance system is blocking you from obtaining what you need for your good health.” From a Time magazine exposé, it appears that AFLDS also doesn’t answer e-mails or phone calls from people who paid the $90 and never even had a doctor consultation scheduled.

If a website user who pays the $90 is lucky enough to actually get a consultation scheduled, the meeting with the doctor will be set up by, utilizing a telehealth platform provided by Cadence Health. The doctors they get to speak with may prescribe HCQ or ivermectin after the patient acknowledges the following disclaimer intended to relieve the prescribing physician from liability: “As a potential patient, I acknowledge and understand that the Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and Ivermectin have been deemed ‘Highly Not Recommended’ by the WHO, FDA, CDC, and NIH. Should a patient [who suffers an adverse reaction to the drug] choose to not disclose their proper medical history, the clinician cannot be held liable nor can any medical license in any state be reviewed or held accountable.”

The prescriptions are then filled by Ravkoo, a service that works with local pharmacies to ship drugs to patients’ doors. The unreimbursable charges for the drugs, which the patient must pay over and above the $90 consultation fee (and possible $59.99 charges for follow-up telehealth visits), are often grossly inflated, ranging from $70 to $700 per prescription. The network of organizations involved in this racket is summarized in Fig. I.5, including the parent company Encore Telemedicine of SpeakWithAnMD. Since 2015 Encore Telemedicineappears to have been run out of a home by a golf club in suburban Georgia, according to its business registration.”

Figure I.5. The organizations and leaders involved in the telehealth prescription business for hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as (phony) COVID treatments.

The only information we have about the magnitude of the AFLDS-sponsored prescription racket comes from a hack of the computer systems of Cadence Health and Ravkoo, which was then provided to The Intercept. The anonymous hacker reported that the sites, which are supposed to provide HIPAA-mandated patient privacy protection, were “hilariously easy” to hack. The hacked data includes “notes from patients’ phone consultations, which sometimes include medical histories and prescription information.” The Intercept has not published any of that patient data, but they do note the following: “The hacked data includes information on 281,000 patients created in the Cadence Health database between July 16 and September 12, 2021 — 90 percent of whom were referred from America’s Frontline Doctors. In just those two months, [72,000] patients paid an estimated $6.7 million for consultations…[and] at least $15 million — and potentially much more — on consultations and medications combined.” In addition, the hack revealed that 46% of Ravkoo’s filled prescriptions between November 3, 2020 and September 11, 2021, covering $8.5 million dollars of drugs overall, were for HCQ or ivermectin, while an additional 30% were for zinc or azithromycin. 

When the hack was revealed the Cadence Health CEO claimed ignorance: “I’m totally flabbergasted. I had to look up exactly who these people were…I don’t want to be associated with any crap like that. None of that quackery that’s going on.” Cadence Health did subsequently terminate its service with SpeakWithAnMD. The Ravkoo CEO claimed that they had stopped doing business with SpeakWithAnMD and AFLDS at the end of August 2021. A lawyer for AFLDS claimed that the organization “take[s] these issues very seriously… We understand that the information from this was reported to the FBI, and AFLDS launched a third-party audit and are responding to this issue with the utmost attention.” We don’t expect the results from the “third-party audit” to become public any time soon.

In addition to the funds they receive for consultations, the AFLDS website invites visitors to donate to the cause under the rubric “What’s freedom worth to you?” The group made clear whose freedom they meant when Simone Gold was arrested for her participation in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. They sent emails to their supporters requestingurgent and generous donations to withstand such aggressive assaults from the ruthless enemies of free speech,” and raised more than $400,000 for Gold’s legal defense. The website also hawks various AFLDS paraphernalia.

In short, AFLDS is a right-wing political organization far more interested in supporting Donald Trump and his followers, while raking in bucks from the sale of snake oil, than they are in advancing the health (or the liberty) of American citizens. Their dupes come primarily from Trump voters, who are far more susceptible to vaccine misinformation and therefore more likely to die from COVID-19 (see Fig. I.6). Dr. Kolina Koltai of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public puts it this way: “Misinformation can be really powerful to swindle people into buying products. America’s Frontline Doctors are able to scale this up massively.”

Figure I.6. Survey of the rates of COVID vaccinations and the per capita number of COVID-19 deaths across some 3000 U.S. counties, as a function of the percentage of voters in each county who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

II. Some Prominent AFLDS Doctors

In this section we will review three of the most prominent members of the group America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS).  We will review their history and will fact-check some of their statements about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic.  We will also discuss their links to right-wing groups and Trump supporters; we will also provide information about their credentials and their expertise (or lack thereof) in treating COVID patients. 

When discussing the opinions of these AFLDS members, we may repeat some statements that were made in section I of this post.  We include this information in the interest of completeness. 

Simone Gold:

Simone Gold is a doctor and attorney.  She is the founder of the group America’s Frontline Doctors.  She received her M.D. degree from the Chicago Medical School in 1989.  After this, she attended Stanford Law School, where she graduated in 1993.  She then completed a residency in emergency medicine at Stony Brook University.  Figure I.1 shows Dr. Gold at the July 27, 2020 press conference by the AFLDS group that was held on the steps of the Supreme Court.  

Dr. Gold likes to portray her physician practice as caring for underserved elements of the community. “I have always worked with the poor and underserved,” claimed Gold.  She described treating emergency room patients in Inglewood, California, “A low-income, gang-ridden majority-minority city that provided the setting for the tough 1991 drama Boyz N the Hood.” However, her personal Website (now deleted) provided a radically different perspective on her work; there, Dr. Gold described herself as a concierge specialist. “As a C-Suite Physician, Dr. Gold works the same way as a highly effective Fortune 100 CEO…all with an eye toward fixing her client’s exact problem.”  Apparently, as a concierge physician Gold charged $5,000 for an initial appointment and between $25,000 and $50,000 for ongoing consultations, not exactly fees the “poor and underserved” could afford to pay.

In spring 2020, Dr. Gold met with a number of conservative activists who were interested in forming a group of physicians who would counter messages about the COVID-19 pandemic that were being released by the CDC, the FDA and the NIH.  These people included the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots Jenny Beth Martin, Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks, and Lisa Nelson of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  These Trump supporters wanted to spread a message that opposed economic shutdowns, mask wearing and social distancing as effective methods to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

In May 2020, Dr. Gold organized an open letter to then-president Donald Trump.  The letter referred to a national shutdown as a ‘mass casualty event.’  In particular, the letter implied that issues such as avoidance of medical care by patients during the pandemic, increased substance abuse (a real phenomenon, as the pandemic occurred during the opiate crisis triggered by Purdue Pharma’s Oxycontin drug), and mental stresses that could lead to increases in suicides, were likely more serious issues than the SARS-Cov-2 virus itself.  The letter was signed by 600 doctors. 

Then in July 2020, Gold’s Group (who now referred to themselves as “America’s Frontline Doctors”) held a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building.  Appearing in white lab coats (as shown in Fig. I.1), they made a number of claims regarding the pandemic.  First, they claimed that COVID-19 was actually not that serious a disease, since on average about 99% of people who are infected eventually recover.  Although technically true, this statement is seriously misleading, as many people suffer lingering and sometimes chronic medical conditions as a result of contracting COVID.  Dr. Gold also asserted that masks don’t work in preventing the spread of the disease.   An extensive review on mask wearing by Howard et al. concluded that mask wearing was effective, saying “The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts.” Furthermore, we now have comparative evidence (see Fig. II.1) of the efficacy of masks from several states where mask mandates were left to the discretion of individual counties.

Figure II.1. The efficacy of mask-wearing in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is illustrated by comparison of impacts from counties with and without mask mandates on COVID cases per capita in Kansas (upper frame) and deaths per capita in Tennessee (lower frame).

The upper graph in Fig. II.1 compares COVID cases per 100,000 people in Kansas counties that implemented a mask mandate vs. counties that opted out. COVID cases stabilized in counties with mask mandates but rose rapidly in counties with no mandates. The lower curve in Fig. II.1 compares relative per capita COVID-19 deaths in Tennessee counties against the choice to adopt mask mandates. The grey curves show death rates in “early adopter” counties; black curves are for “late adopter” counties; and red curves for counties that never adopted a mandate. The graph clearly shows that adoption of mask mandates decreased COVID fatalities.

In addition, Dr. Gold and other members of AFLDS have claimed that there were effective treatments available for COVID patients.  In particular, they touted both hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as effective in treating COVID.  A review of the literature regarding the potential effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine states that “The best available evidence suggests that hydroxychloroquine is not effective in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19, and the potential benefits of the drug do not outweigh the known and potential risks.” Although clinical tests of ivermectin are still ongoing, a comprehensive review of ivermectin, a chemical most widely used for de-worming horses, showed “No effect whatsoever” for ivermectin against COVID. 

Following her appearance at the “America’s Frontline Doctors” event in July, 2020, Gold became a favorite of right-wing commentators, particularly on Fox News network.  She appeared with right-wing luminaries such as Sebastian Gorka, Glenn Beck, Charlie Kirk (founder of the organization Turning Point USA), Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson.  Early on, her main message was her advocacy for hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), and her claim that she had been made part of the “medical cancel culture” when she was told not to treat COVID patients with HCQ, because at that time the anti-malaria drug had not been authorized by the FDA for use against COVID.  The drug HCQ would later receive emergency-use authorization from the FDA for treatment of COVID, but the authorization was revoked after it was found in large-sample clinical studies that HCQ was useless against the coronavirus, and that it also had some serious side effects.  Gold stated that she had been fired from the hospitals where she had worked as an emergency room physician, as a result of the misinformation she had spread about the pandemic. 

Figure II.2:  A montage of screenshots of Simone Gold appearing on various Fox News segments.

The overwhelmingly negative coverage that the AFLDS physicians had on mainstream media has not stopped Dr. Gold and the other AFLDS physicians from doubling down and repeating their misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.  But the right-wing media’s interest in Gold’s message began to wane as it became clear that hydroxychloroquine was of no use in treating COVID infections.  So Gold turned her attention to denigrating the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

She repeated her false claims regarding the disease in a talk that she gave at a rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5, 2021.  At this point, there were vaccines by both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that had been given emergency use authorization approval by the FDA.  Gold not only claimed that the vaccines were not effective against COVID, but also claimed falsely that the vaccines had significant side effects. Dr. Gold stated “We (the AFLDS physicians) are pro-vaccine, but this is not a vaccine.”   It is true that these vaccines utilize a mechanism, genetically engineered messenger RNA (mRNA) that had not been previously used for vaccines. Perhaps Dr. Gold and her colleagues had failed to keep up with the miracles of modern gene editing and immunotherapies.   

However, research had previously been carried out for mRNA to be potentially used against diseases such as flu, Zika, rabies and cytomegalovirus.  Also, cancer research has used mRNA to trigger the immune system to target specific cancer cells.  Against COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine is injected into muscle tissue.  The mRNA enters the muscle cells and teaches the cells to produce a harmless piece of the spike protein, a distinctive element of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.  When our system recognizes that our bodies have been invaded by a virus containing the particular spike protein, this stimulates our immune system to produce antibodies, and activates immune cells to fight off the infection. 

Thus, mRNA research has been carried out for decades, and we have every reason to believe that mRNA vaccines might be a highly effective technique against a wide range of diseases.  In fact, after millions of Americans have received doses of these mRNA vaccines, it appears that mRNA vaccines might constitute a new miracle drug.  The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are highly effective in fighting off infection and preventing serious effects from COVID; furthermore, they appear to have very few side effects.  Up to this time, the side effects seen from the Pfizer and Moderna drugs are some rare blood-clotting issues for young women, and some rare myocarditis effects; however, the myocarditis effects from vaccination are far smaller than the risks of myocarditis resulting from COVID infection.  

The mRNA vaccines have other advantages.  At present (Dec. 2021), the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has emerged in the last couple of months.  The Omicron variant appears to be significantly more transmissible than other COVID variants, and it shows signs of being less severe than the Delta variant.  Early signs are that more conventional vaccines, such as the AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and the Russian and Chinese vaccines, offer little or no protection against Omicron.  On the other hand, both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines seem to be quite effective against Omicron, although with slightly reduced efficacy compared to the virus variants the mRNA was originally engineered for. 

Simone Gold’s anti-vaccine message resonated with evangelical Christian groups.  In particular, there were large evangelical churches that had refused to halt large in-person services.  Several of these pastors were outspoken vaccine skeptics.  In fall 2020, Dr. Gold began appearing on Daystar, America’s second-largest Christian TV network.  She became friends with Daystar founders Marcus and Joni Lamb, appeared at least six times on Daystar programs, and Marcus Lamb assisted Gold in fund-raising events.  Alas, perhaps the Lambs should not have listened to Dr. Gold’s anti-vaxxer advice.  In fall 2021, both Marcus and Joni Lamb caught COVID, and on Nov. 30 2021 Marcus died from COVID.  It is not known whether Lamb was vaccinated but he did report that he had taken ivermectin in an attempt to fight off the disease. 

Figure II.3: The NBC News story announcing the death of Daystar TV founder and prominent anti-vaxxer Marcus Lamb from COVID. 

As it became more apparent that America’s Frontline Doctors was an organization bankrolled by conservative media supporting Donald Trump, Simone Gold’s rhetoric expanded to include more strident pro-Trump claims.  In particular, she bought into Trump’s “Big Steal” claim that he received the majority of electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election, but that somehow the counting of votes was rigged to deny him the presidency. 

At a Jan. 5, 2021 rally in Washington D.C., Gold asked the assembled crowd, “Why are you here?…I believe the reason you are here is the same reason I am choosing to be here. Because we all have recognized a blatant assault on the rule of law… We are sick and tired of being lied to.”  On Jan. 6, Dr. Gold was scheduled to speak at a D.C. Rally for Health Freedom.  However, that rally was cancelled before she spoke. 

Dr. Gold next attended the Jan. 6 rally for Trump.  Gold accompanied the crowd that marched from the White House to the Capitol building.  There, Dr. Gold and John Strand, the director of communications for AFLDS, entered the Capitol “in the middle of a crowd attempting to push past law enforcement officials to get inside.”  Once inside, Gold borrowed a bullhorn from another insurrectionist and delivered the speech she was supposed to have given earlier that day.  Figure II.4 shows a photo of Gold with a bullhorn standing next to Strand.  They are pressed up against the entrance to the House chamber, where law enforcement officials were attempting to prevent entrance. 

Figure II.4:  Simone Gold and John Strand in the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.  Dr. Gold is holding a bullhorn and addressing people inside the Capitol. 

On the steps of the Capitol building, John Strand tweeted, “I am incredibly proud to be a patriot today, to stand up tall in defense of liberty & the Constitution, to support Trump & #MAGAforever, & to send the message: WE ARE NEVER CONCEDING A STOLEN ELECTION.” 

Several photos and videos were taken of Gold and Strand inside the Capitol.  After the insurrection, the FBI rapidly issued posters seeking information about people seen inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.  In the poster in Fig. II.5, you can see Gold and Strand in the composite FBI poster at top left.  On Jan. 18, 2021, FBI agents entered the house of Simone Gold and arrested her and John Strand (Strand is currently living with Gold).  Dr. Gold was charged with entering a restricted building or grounds, disorderly conduct, and violent entry.  She was arraigned on Feb. 5, where she pleaded not guilty to all charges.   Gold has said “I do regret being there,” but at the same time she claimed that “Where I was, was incredibly peaceful.”  This statement contradicts videos that show Gold alongside people breaking windows at the Capitol and scuffling with Capitol police. 

Figure II.5: FBI poster requesting information on insurrectionists inside the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.  Dr. Simone Gold and John Strand are shown in the photo at top left in the poster.

So, Simone Gold has morphed from being an advocate for hydroxychloroquine, to spreading misinformation about the COVID vaccines, to taking part in the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.  In an article in Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer provides a detailed timeline of Dr. Gold’s actions and her increasing radicalization.  It appears that Dr. Gold is willing to say almost anything to keep herself in the news, and she has by now become part of the Trumpist faction that disseminates anti-vaxxer information while espousing debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.  Gold’s actions clearly show the extent to which “America’s Frontline Doctors” act as an integral part of a right-wing effort to politicize the pandemic.    

Has Dr. Gold Exaggerated Claims About Her Status and Experience? 

Gold claims that she worked as a fellow for U.S. Congressman Jim Jeffords in 1997; however, Jeffords’ former chief of staff has no recollection of her working in Jeffords’ office.  She also claims to have worked in 2009 as an assistant for Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.  Ambassador Oren said that he did not remember Dr. Gold. 

It is also unclear to what extent Dr. Gold had treated COVID patients.  She has emphasized her role as an emergency room physician, but the hospitals where she worked have not provided details of her work there.  According to, Dr. Gold recorded videos in April 2020 standing “outside the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles wearing a white coat embroidered with her name above the words ‘Emergency Dept’.” In these videos she spoke about her “experience practicing emergency medicine in this era of the COVID-19 crisis,” and she claimed that “the emergency department volume is down” and “we have been very successful at flattening the curve.” In fact, however, Gold never actually worked at the hospital, having been affiliated with Cedars-Sinai only “when she worked on a per-diem basis in a Cedars-Sinai Medical Network urgent care clinic for less than three weeks in 2015.”

As we mentioned earlier, while her Webpage emphasized her work in emergency rooms in underserved communities, at the same time she promoted herself as a concierge physician offering individual service to wealthy clients.  These two claims are not mutually exclusive, but they do raise questions about her hands-on experience treating the pandemic.  

Stella Immanuel

Stella Gwindiku-Ambe Immanuel is a physician and pastor.  She was born in Cameroon in 1965 and received her M.D. degree from the University of Calibar in Nigeria.  In 1992 she emigrated to the U.S. and she first began practicing pediatric medicine at the Southern Pediatric Clinic in Alexandria, Louisiana.  In 2020, a suit was filed against Dr. Immanuel alleging that one of her patients had died because she neglected to remove a fragment of a needle that had broken off in the woman’s arm (the woman intended to inject herself with methamphetamines).  The Louisiana authorities attempted to serve notice of the lawsuit, but by this time Dr. Immanuel had moved to Houston, Texas, where she currently owns and operates the Rehoboth Medical Center, a clinic located in a Houston strip mall.

Figure II.6: Dr Stella Immanuel, a member of America’s Frontline Doctors. 

Dr. Immanuel is also a pastor and founder of The Power Ministries.  This organization is part of a charismatic religious movement associated with African churches.   On her Facebook page, Dr. Immanuel describes herself as “Physician, Author, Speaker, Entrepreneur, Deliverance Minister, God’s battle axe and weapon of war,” and also as “God’s Warrior Princess.”   As part of this organization, Dr. Immanuel has made some particularly bizarre claims.  For example, she has said that many gynecological issues are caused by spirit spouses, and she has also endorsed several outrageous conspiracy theories regarding society and government.  Here is a list of allegations that have been made by Dr. Immanuel; some of these appear in Fig. II.7. 

  • Gynecological problems such as “endometriosis, infertility, miscarriages, and sexually transmitted infections” are caused by a person having “astral sex.”  Dr. Immanuel defines “astral sex” as “The ability to project one’s spirit man into the victim’s body and have sex with it.”  Immanuel continues that this practice “Is very common among Satanists.” 
  • Alien DNA is currently being used in medical treatments.
  • Scientists have plans to install microchips in people, and they are developing a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. 
  • The U.S. Government is run in part by reptilians and other aliens. 
  • The “Magic 8-Ball” toy is psychic and part of a scheme to get children interested in witchcraft.  Similarly, Harry Potter, Pokémon, Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place are part of a scheme to introduce children to spirits and witches. 
  • Schools teach children to meditate so they can meet with demons.
  • Gay marriage will lead to parents marrying their children, and gay Americans are practicing “homosexual terrorism.” 
Figure II.7:  Some of the beliefs espoused by Dr. Stella Immanuel, who is also a pastor at Fire Power Ministries. 

Dr. Immanuel’s far-out religious/political notions also seem to play a role in her career as a physician.  At the ‘America’s Frontline Doctors’ event in July 2020, Dr. Immanuel claimed that she had cured COVID-19 in 350 patients in her Houston clinic using a combination of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and zinc.  She further claimed that public health measures such as social distancing and wearing masks were not only useless but also unnecessary, because her medical cocktail would cure any SARS-CoV-2 infection. 

Dr. Immanuel’s comments at the AFLDS press conference were re-tweeted by both then-president Donald Trump and his son Donald, Jr.  Both claimed to be “very impressed” by Dr. Immanuel.  At a subsequent press briefing, Donald Trump was pressed about his support for a doctor who had made such outrageous statements about medicine and religion.  He responded “She said that she’s had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients.  And I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her.” 

The video of the AFLDS press conference was subsequently removed from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube because if violated their rules on spreading misinformation about the pandemic.  When informed that the AFLDS video had been removed from those social media sites, Dr. Immanuel threatened on Twitter, “Hello Facebook put back my profile page and videos up or your computers with start crashing till you do.  You are not bigger than God.  I promise you.  If my page is not back up face book will be down in Jesus name.”  To the best of our knowledge, God has not inflicted any punishment on Facebook for removing that post. 

Dr. Stella Immanuel’s pronouncements about COVID, demon sperm and reptilians running the government seem so crazy that it is hard to believe any thoughtful person would endorse such statements.  However, shortly after the AFLDS press conference, the pop singer Madonna uploaded a post on Instagram.  The post repeated Immanuel’s false statements about COVID and her “cure,” saying “The truth will set us all free!” Madonna continued by saying that a vaccine against COVID “has been available for months” (this was in July 2020, months before the first COVID vaccine was available), but that “People in power who stand to make money from this long-drawn-out search for a vaccine” did not want to make it available to the public. {Note the contrast with more recent anti-vaxxer claims, including those of Simone Gold, that the mRNA vaccines were rushed to market before they were fully tested.) Madonna ended by stating that Immanuel was “my hero.”  Very shortly afterwards, Instagram blurred Madonna’s post as it violated their rules against posting misinformation. 

You can also find misinformation on social media that attempts to link the pandemic, and COVID vaccines, with Bill Gates.  There are several reasons why Gates plays a role in several conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic.  First, Gates is one of the richest men in the world, and for many years he has warned about the possibility of a serious pandemic.  He is also a major donor to international health organizations through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  In addition, he made his fortune in computer software and thus can be connected with advances in technology.  An article by Leach and Probyn in The Guardian shows links in conspiracy theories between the pandemic, vaccines against COVID, 5G wireless technology, and Bill Gates. 

There is also a Facebook post that compares expertise and motive between Dr. Stella Immanuel and Bill Gates.  This is shown in Fig. II.8.  It lists Immanuel’s credentials as “Licensed Physician” and “Board-Certified M.D.,” while Bill Gates is listed as “College Dropout” and “No M.D.”  The post further claims that while Immanuel is “Censored and Banned,” the “Eugenicist” Bill Gates is “Allowed to Give Medical Advice on Health.”  Of course, the Facebook post makes no mention of Dr. Immanuel’s unhinged claims about demon sperm, that reptilians and aliens are running the U.S. government, or that scientists are developing a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. 

Figure II.8: Facebook post that compares Bill Gates (unfavorably) with Stella Immanuel.  Note that this post makes no mention of Dr. Immanuel’s bizarre claims about demon sperm, or reptilians and aliens running our government.

In October 2021, the Texas medical board took corrective action against Immanuel over her HCQ prescription for COVID patients, after the FDA had removed the emergency authorization for the use of hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19.  The board ordered Immanuel to submit proof that all patients for whom Dr. Immanuel had prescribed off-label treatments for COVID had authorized their consent to receive those drugs, and also that those patients understood the possible health outcomes.  The medical board also fined Dr. Immanuel $500. 

Dr. Joseph Ladapo

Joseph Ladapo was born in Nigeria.  When he was five years old, his family emigrated to the U.S.  Ladapo obtained a BA degree in chemistry from Wake Forest University in 2000.  He then completed an MD-PhD program at Harvard.  He received his MD degree from Harvard Medical School and a PhD in health policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  Dr. Ladapo is board-certified in internal medicine. 

Figure II.9:  Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who is currently the Surgeon General for the State of Florida under Governor Ron DeSantis. 

Until 2021, Ladapo worked as an associate professor at the UCLA Medical Center.  He authored an op-ed column in USA Today in March 2020, where he claimed that he had “Spent the past week taking care of patients with COVID-19 at UCLA’s flagship hospital.”   However, several of Ladapo’s former colleagues at UCLA told MSNBC that to the best of their knowledge, “They do not believe Dr. Ladapo had actually treated COVID patients at all at UCLA.”   Furthermore, staff scheduling records from UCLA Medical Center at that time do not show Ladapo being assigned to treat COVID patients.  As with Simone Gold, Joseph Ladapo has made claims about his expertise and experience that are not supported by the evidence. 

Dr. Ladapo subsequently became a favorite among right-wing media.  He published a number of op-ed columns in the Washington Post.  In a June 21, 2021 op-ed in the Post, Ladapo co-authored an opinion column titled “Are COVID Vaccines Riskier Than Advertised?”  This carried the subtitle “There are concerning trends on blood clots and low platelets, not that the authorities will tell you.”  However, the data Ladapo presented were taken directly from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).  So, the implication that this data was being covered up by the authorities was completely false.

The VAERS system is consistently mis-used by anti-vaxxers.  They imply that from the number of “adverse events,” they can determine the harm caused by vaccines.  However, anyone from the public can upload a claim on the VAERS system – everything from a sore arm to a rash to a life-threatening blood clot can be uploaded on that site.  For example, it is claimed that many anti-vaxxers “report” cases of autism on the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine VAERS test site.  Data on the VAERS site are useful because they can point researchers to areas where further research is needed; however, simply listing the number of entries on the VAERS database tells us nothing concrete about actual adverse effects directly caused by the vaccine.   

Ladapo and his co-author cite four adverse effects from the COVID vaccine, and they claim that they government is covering these up.  Those four are thrombocytopenia, myocarditis, deep-vein thrombosis and death.  But the CDC has studied and posted information on all of these conditions: see here, here, here, and here.  There is no cover-up of these conditions, contrary to what Ladapo has claimed. 

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 9/21/21-Dr. Joseph A. Ladapo, MD, PhD, right, speaks after Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, named him Florida Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health, Tuesday during a news conference at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Figure II.10:  The press conference where Governor Ron DeSantis introduced Dr. Joseph Ladapo as the new Surgeon General for Florida. 

After Joseph Ladapo was installed as the Surgeon General of Florida, he hit the ground running.  On his first day as Surgeon General, he issued an “emergency ruling” that gave parents the sole responsibility for deciding if their children would wear masks in school.  Furthermore, he ruled that children who test positive for COVID-19 can remain in school, “without restrictions or disparate treatment, so long as the student is asymptomatic.”   This directly contradicts the observation that people with asymptomatic COVID can transmit the disease, even before any symptoms appear.  Furthermore, the CDC recommends that anyone exposed to a person with COVID should quarantine at home for 14 days [Note: as of Dec. 27, 2021, the CDC has recently reduced their proposed quarantine time]. 

In a press conference, Dr. Ladapo claimed that fear “has been something that’s been unfortunately a centerpiece of health policy in the United States ever since the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s over here.”  Ladapo has also downplayed the importance of vaccination in halting the pandemic, stating that it “Has been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless.”  Ladapo continued that vaccination was just one of several public health measures that should be emphasized, including also “losing weight, exercising more, and eating more fruits and vegetables.”  Not to denigrate eating your veggies, but mass vaccination is the only one of these practices that will stop a pandemic from spreading. 

Jenn Bellamy, a Florida attorney and a co-founder of the Society for Science-Based Medicine, has noted Dr. Ladapo’s highly unscientific approach to public health.  When Ladapo talks about something he opposes, such as wearing masks, he stresses uncertainties in whether this works, or he cherry-picks evidence suggesting that it doesn’t work, even in cases where the preponderance of robust trials shows that mask-wearing is effective (see also Fig. II.1).  On the other hand, with something like hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), Ladapo claims that it is unknown how effective this is, even though we now have a wide array of clinical trials showing that HCQ is worthless against the SARS CoV-2 virus.  The latest clinical trials of ivermectin, while not yet definitive, are showing that this drug is also ineffective as a treatment for COVID.   

Figure II.11:  Dr. Joseph Ladapo (R) and Florida State Senator Tina Polsky; Sen. Polsky asked Dr. Ladapo to wear a mask at a meeting they attended, and Dr. Ladapo refused.  

Dr. Ladapo also had a contentious interaction with one of Florida’s state representatives.  Florida State Senator Tina Polsky asked Dr. Ladapo to wear a mask when they were in a meeting together.  Dr. Ladapo refused.  Senator Polsky then revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was about to begin radiation therapy treatments.  Nearly a week after this confrontation, Ladapo issued a statement that said “It is important for me to communicate clearly and effectively with people.  I can’t do that when half of my face is covered.”  This has not stopped many thousands of officials to wear masks when in public; it appears that Dr. Ladapo’s actions represent more of a political stance than a public-health gesture.  But then, all of Ladapo’s actions as Florida Surgeon General appear to place politics above public health, a stance that probably led to his appointment by Gov. DeSantis. 

These three members of America’s Frontline Doctors share a particular set of beliefs and prejudices.  All of their recommendations are in line with those advocated by Trumpists.  They denigrate wearing of masks and social distancing as methods to limit the spread of the pandemic; they are disdainful of the efficacy of vaccines, especially the new mRNA vaccines, and they over-emphasize the minimal potential harm from these vaccines; yet they place great value on two treatment methods, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, that clinical trials show have little or no value in treating COVID-19 (see here and here).  Sadly, the messages from AFLDS have resonated with right-wing political figures, and this has caused much misinformation and considerable strife from groups that accept their statements as legitimate medical advice.  The  actions of AFLDS members ensure that the pandemic will last longer, infect and kill more people, and allow time for more variants to emerge.  For these reasons, we refer to this group as “America’s Frontline Quacks.” 

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