In the spring of 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic was raging around the world, a scientist named Judy Mikovits suddenly became one of the best-known figures in the American debates over the seriousness of the epidemic, and the relative merits of leaving “shelter in place” orders intact as opposed to rapidly trying to re-start the economy.
Dr. Mikovits was the central figure in a 26-minute video called Plandemic. She and a few other figures were interviewed by the video’s producer, Mikki Willis. In Plandemic, Dr. Mikovits was introduced as one of the world’s top virologists. The trailer for that video is shown in Fig. 1 below. She proceeded to make a number of sensational claims regarding the origin of the pandemic, the best ways to defend against it, and the prospects for a successful vaccine against COVID-19. She also made some remarkable statements about the medical community, and in particular the role of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a leading figure in immunology ever since the AIDS pandemic nearly 40 years ago. According to Dr. Mikovits, she was revealing a massive conspiracy between the medical establishment, large pharmaceutical companies and our federal health-care system.
Such claims, especially when made by a world-class virologist, rapidly propelled Plandemic to a sensation on the Internet. But because the messages in this video were surprising and highly controversial, soon Plandemic was removed from one Internet platform after another, for violating their terms of agreement. So Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and other sites banned the video. However, the video was uploaded onto new sites, and was hidden by supporters of the message faster than the video could be banned.
In this post, we will review Judy Mikovits’ career. We will focus on her research and her prior statements regarding public health. Is she indeed one of the most respected scientists in the field of virology? What are her claims, what evidence is presented to support them, and what is the response from mainstream scientists to her allegations? We will attempt to answer the question of why the Plandemic video had so many hits, and we will speculate about what this portends in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus involved in the COVID-19 pandemic), and the current push to develop and mass-produce a vaccine against this virus.
Judy Mikovits was born in 1957 or 1958. Her first experience in scientific research took place in 1988 when she worked as a lab technician at the National Cancer Institute. Mikovits then obtained her Ph.D. degree in virology from George Washington University in 1991 under the supervision of Dr. Frank Ruscetti. The title of her thesis was Negative Regulation of HIV Suppression in Monocytes. In 2006, Dr. Mikovits became the research director at a private laboratory, the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI), located in Reno, Nevada.
The Whittemore Peterson Institute had been funded by Harvey Whittemore and his wife Annette Whittemore. The institute was set up to investigate the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as Myalgic Encephalitis (ME; the disorder is sometimes known as CFS/ME). The Whittemores were frustrated by the difficulty that their daughter and others had in being diagnosed and treated for what had long been a puzzling medical condition. So they established this facility to perform research on CFS/ME.
It was while she was working at WPI that Judy Mikovits became interested in the possible cause of CFS/ME. This became the source of what is now an infamous episode in the field of virology. It involved a mouse retrovirus called XMRV, the claim that this retrovirus was the cause of CFS/ME, and the subsequent controversy over these claims.
The XMRV Debacle
In 2006, a group of researchers discovered a retrovirus in mice. It was called xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus, or XMRV for short. The authors, one of whom was Robert Silverman of the Cleveland Clinic, characterized and sequenced the novel gammaretrovirus. In addition, the researchers claimed that they identified XMRV in prostate cancers of certain patients. Later, a much more comprehensive study conclusively showed that there was no relationship between XMRV and human prostate cancer. It turned out that the presence of XMRV in samples from people with prostate cancer was a result of laboratory contamination. The conclusions of this paper relating to prostate cancer were retracted in 2012.
Jon Cohen and Martin Enserink wrote an excellent review of the story of XMRV, called False Positive, that was published in Science magazine in Sept 2011. This story won the 2012 Public Communications Award from the American Society for Microbiology. Our review of this case relies heavily on their story (at least up to Sept. 2011). Fig. 3 shows the front page of the False Positive story.
In 2009, Mikovits, her Ph.D. mentor Frank Ruscetti, and other colleagues published a paper in Science (V.C. Lombardi et al., Science 326, 585 (2009) – retracted) announcing that they had discovered the cause of CFS/ME [we will refer to this paper as either the Lombardi paper or the Mikovits paper]. They claimed to have proved that the mouse retrovirus XMRV was the cause of CFS. This paper created a great deal of interest in the scientific community for several reasons. The first was the apparent discovery of a cause for CFS. Identification of a retroviral cause for chronic fatigue syndrome suggested that the disease could be combated with antiviral agents (the Lombardi group stated that they found XMRV in the blood of two-thirds of their CFS patients). Not surprisingly, the announcement of the cause of CFS and hints of a possible cure caused great elation in people with this disease and their families.
But there were other reasons why this appeared to be a significant discovery. For example, the Lombardi et al. paper suggested that retroviruses from animals may well have been transmitted to humans, where they caused diseases. This opened up the possibility that animal retroviruses in general, and XMRV in particular, might be responsible for many human diseases. So the claim of Lombardi and collaborators set off discussions about extending similar studies to other diseases, particularly autoimmune disorders.
Until the study by Lombardi et al., scientists had implicated retroviruses in only three other ailments. This included HIV 1 and 2 (human immunodeficiency virus), the cause of AIDS; the HTLV group (human T-cell lymphotrophic virus), at least one of which — HTLV-1 — was a cause of leukemia, lymphoma and an MS-like neurological disease; and HBRV (human beta retrovirus), tentatively considered the cause of a severe liver disease called primary biliary cirrhosis.
Yet another reason for the importance of this paper is that Mikovits and her collaborators estimated that roughly 4% of the general population carried XMRV in their genetic material. If XMRV was pathogenic to humans, then it would likely be transmitted to others through blood transfusions. America had already experienced a situation, with HIV and AIDS, where deadly diseases had moved through the population via transfusions of tainted blood. So the Mikovits paper had potentially serious implications for the safety of the American blood supply.
The Mikovits paper spurred a number of groups to study XMRV in the hope of developing effective treatments for CFS, looking for other retroviruses that might be human pathogens, and thinking of ways to safeguard the blood supply. But not everyone was on board with the Lombardi claims. Initially, their paper had been rejected by Science. Two referees were not convinced that the issue of contamination had been ruled out. Mikovits and her collaborators eventually convinced the referees to publish the article. However, various groups soon reported that they could not replicate the results of the Lombardi article.
In addition, researchers who pulled samples from some patients with CFS from the Lombardi study found bacterial plasmid DNA mixed up with the retroviruses. There were two possibilities for the presence of bacterial plasmids. First, the experiment may have been contaminated with extraneous substances. Another more ominous possibility was that the XMRV had not accidentally been mixed in the experiment, but rather that some samples had been “spiked” with the retrovirus. Apparently a common method used when adding materials to a sample is to first mix them with bacterial plasmid.
The second hypothesis gained support when it was shown that the bacterial plasmid was present only in those patients with CFS, and not in the controls. The scientific community considered this to be disastrous. First, they concluded that Mikovits’ experiment was not just sloppy but possibly fraudulent. Furthermore, some observers complained that the experiment was not properly “blinded;” that is, the researchers knew which samples were from patients with CFS and which were controls. In Nov. 2009, Patrick Moore and Masahiro Shuda published a paper pointing out that a technique called “nested PCR” which had been used by the Lombardi group “is inherently prone to intermittent false positivity that has occurred in our lab and many others.”
On July 1, 2011, the editors of Science released a “statement of concern” about the Lombardi paper. The authors of that 2009 Lombardi paper subsequently retracted two figures and a table from their original work. And Robert Silverman of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the co-authors of the paper and the leader of the group that had discovered XMRV in 2006, unilaterally removed his name from the paper.
A multi-laboratory study was then undertaken by the Blood Working Group under the leadership of Michael Busch and Simone Glynn. The goal was to determine the reliability of tests for XMRV in blood samples. The results were striking. The experiment used three sets of blood samples that were tested by nine different laboratories in a blind study. There were 15 ‘control’ samples, from people who did not have CFS. In addition, there were 10 samples from CFS patients whose blood had been tested by Mikovits and collaborators; and 5 samples from a group headed by Shyh-Ching Lo. Lo’s group had studied patients with CFS and claimed to find polytropic murine leukemia virus (pMLV)-related gene sequences in their study. In addition, this new experiment included another 5 samples that had been “spiked” with XMRV.
One type of test utilized was nucleic acid amplification testing or NAT, which was carried out by seven laboratories. None of these laboratories reported finding XMRV or pMLV using NAT in any of the 15 samples where these viruses had been reported earlier by the Mikovits and Lo groups. However, the Mikovits group at WPI reported finding XMRV present in two of the 15 control samples (no other group found XMRV in any of the controls). Furthermore, whereas every other group detected XMRV in all 5 of the ‘spiked’ samples, the WPI group detected XMRV in only 3 of those 5!
A series of other tests were also carried out by the nine labs. The only people who reported finding XMRV in patients with CFS were Mikovits and Ruscetti (working in different labs). However, both Mikovits and Ruscetti also reported finding XMRV in the negative controls, where all groups had agreed beforehand there was no XMRV. To make matters worse, Mikovits and Ruscetti differed on which samples contained XMRV! This further convinced the virology community that Mikovits and Ruscetti (collaborators on the 2009 Lombardi Science article) were unreliable.
The results were published in a paper in Science in September 2011 titled “Failure to Confirm XMRV/MLVs in the Blood of Patients With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Multi-Laboratory Study” (G. Simmons et al., Science 334, 814 (2011)). This seemed to put to rest the allegations that XMRV had been reliably detected in the blood of patients with CFS. However, in her book Plague of Corruption, Mikovits insists that her initial results were correct in every respect, and that this September 2011 Science article was “completely fraudulent.” Mikovits claims that she and Frank Ruscetti were forced to sign what everyone knew was a fraudulent article. Mikovits further asserts that Ruscetti was forced to co-author “another purely fraudulent paper” stating that the contamination had occurred in her lab.
However, despite her protests about this study, her insistence that 35 samples were far too few for a fair study, and her assessment of this 2011 study as ‘completely fraudulent,’ Mikovits fails to mention that none of the 7 groups, including her own, found XMRV or pMLV using NAT tests in any of the samples from patients with CFS, where Mikovits or Lo had previously claimed to detect retroviruses. Furthermore, she does not mention that her group was the only one that reported finding XMRV in any of the 15 control subjects, or that she failed to detect XMRV in two of the five samples that had been ‘spiked’ with that retrovirus.
As more studies failed to replicate the Lombardi results, pressure grew to retract the entire paper. However, Dr. Mikovits refused to agree that the paper should be retracted. Under normal circumstances, a paper is not retracted unless all its authors agree. However, in Dec. 2011, the Lombardi paper was retracted by order of the editorial board of Science. They issued the following statement: “Science is fully retracting the Report “Detection of an infectious retrovirus, XMRV, in blood cells of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.” Multiple laboratories, including those of the original authors, have failed to reliably detect xenotropic murine leukemia virus– related virus (XMRV) or other murine leukemia virus (MLV)–related viruses in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients. In addition, there is evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments in the Report … Given all of these issues, Science has lost confidence in the Report and the validity of its conclusions … We are therefore editorially retracting the Report. We regret the time and resources that the scientific community has devoted to unsuccessful attempts to replicate these results.”
But since Mikovits still maintained that her original study was valid, she then joined with several collaborators to carry out a much larger and more comprehensive study to check the procedures and results from the original paper. That study was led by Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University and was funded by the National Institutes of Health. It included all of the research groups that had been studying XMRV.
The study by Lipkin et al. examined blood samples from 300 people, half of whom suffered from CFS and half who did not have the disease. Sets of samples were sent to each laboratory in a blinded study, with half CFS patients and half controls. The laboratories used somewhat different techniques to search for XMRV, but the lead investigators at all labs “agreed to the criteria for selecting study subjects and to the strategy for blinding investigators and distributing and analyzing samples.“
In this blinded study none of the groups, including the Mikovits and Lo collaborations, reported finding XMRV in any of the samples. This large collaboration reported that XMRV was not found in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests from the samples from CFS sufferers, nor from the control group. This paper, which included as authors Mikovits, her collaborator and mentor Ruscetti, and Lo, concluded: “Our results definitively indicate that there is no relationship between CFS/ME and infection with either XMRV or pMLV. Indeed, we did not find any evidence of human infection with XMRV or pMLV in peripheral blood in our sample of 293 subjects. In the case of CFS/ME, murine DNA contamination appears to be implicated in findings of XMRV and MLV.”
These results were announced in Sept. 2012. At a press conference to announce the results, lead author Ian Lipkin stated, “The bottom line is we found no evidence of infection with XMRV … These results refute any correlation between these agents and disease.” Dr. Mikovits conceded that the Lipkin result was “The definitive answer” on the issue of XMRV and CFS; she further stated that “There is no evidence that XMRV is a human pathogen.”
As we will see, Dr. Mikovits has now retracted those statements. A significant fraction of her latest book Plague of Corruption deals with her research and the controversy over the initial results. Suffice it to say that she now claims that her results were always completely correct, and that she never doubted that XMRV caused human diseases. In fact, she now claims that it was the September 2011 paper (Simmons et al., Science 334, 814 (2011)) that was fraudulent! However, the scientific community is convinced that there was no XMRV in the samples of CFS patients, nor is there XMRV in the American blood supply.
Around this same time, Dr. Mikovits was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute. Annette Whittemore, the CEO of that institute, states that this occurred because Dr. Mikovits was told to share a cell line with Dr. Vincent Lombardi, the lead author on the 2009 Science article. When Mikovits refused to share the cell line with Lombardi, she was fired by Ms. Whittemore. Shortly after that, the WPI filed suit against Dr. Mikovits, alleging that she had taken laboratory books and other proprietary information from that laboratory without permission. When she was located in California, she was charged with possessing stolen property and being a fugitive from justice, and was jailed briefly.
However, the WPI was then experiencing severe issues as their founder Harvey Whittemore had been charged with campaign finance felonies, for which he was eventually convicted and jailed. Because of their financial difficulties, the WPI was unable to continue their legal issues with Dr. Mikovits, and the charges were dropped.
Judy Mikovits has not published any original scientific research since 2012. However, she has become an activist in public health debates. First, she has revived her claims that XMRV is the cause of various diseases (despite her 2012 concession that XMRV was not a human pathogen). Second, she has made claims about the causes of autism and whether vaccination is related to autism. And she now claims that vaccines carry a great deal of viral material from animals on which vaccine research has been carried out, or from materials used in mass production of vaccines. [see our blog post on vaccination]
Many scientists saw the XMRV debate as a terrible experience. Simon Wessely of Kings College, London, published one of the early experiments that failed to replicate the Lombardi paper. He was besieged by advocates for CFS sufferers, berating him for casting doubt on this miraculous discovery. He even received death threats. His conclusion was that after this controversy, “People will rather go over the Niagara in a barrel than ever getting involved in CFS again.” However, we see this as an example of science at work. Mistakes can be made in experiments. However, when a potentially important experiment cannot be replicated, the community re-examines the work and the mistakes are corrected. There was at least one scientist who was prepared to report the XMRV debacle in a positive light. Ian Lipkin, the principal investigator who led the experiment that killed off the claim that XMRV was the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome and was widespread in the blood of Americans, does credit Mikovits with “Opening Pandora’s box. Right or wrong about this particular virus, she deserves credit for awakening interest in CFS.”
Claims Made in the Plandemic Video:
Plandemic is a 26-minute video produced by Mikki Willis (the trailer for that video is shown in Fig. 1). Mr. Willis, shown in Figure 4, also acts as the interviewer for Dr. Mikovits. An impressive feature of this documentary-style interview is that Willis is somber and respectful and that Dr. Mikovits seems calm and controlled, even when her comments are quite shocking. She projects an air of certainty that must be convincing to viewers who are not particularly knowledgeable about the issues under discussion.
It is notable that although Plandemic is presented as though it was a documentary, no attempt was made to contact any of the scientists accused by Mikovits, to obtain their response to her allegations. Anthony Fauci has been contacted by the fact-checking Website Snopes regarding his interactions with Judy Mikovits. He has denied ever threatening Dr. Mikovits, saying “I have no idea what she is talking about.”
Here is a list of claims made in the Plandemic video, and a review of those assertions. Jon Cohen and Martin Enserink have fact-checked these claims in an article in Science magazine from May 8, 2020. Our discussion below follows the outline of their article. In addition, once Dr. Mikovits’ video went viral, there have been a series of articles debunking her claims. One of the first was by Jane Lytvynenko at Buzzfeed.com. Some of the others can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
1. Judy Mikovits’ Stature as a Scientist:
The Plandemic video introduces Dr. Judy Mikovits as “one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation.” It also claims that “At the height of her career, Dr. Mikovits published a blockbuster article in the journal Science. The controversial article sent shock waves through the scientific community, as it revealed that the common use of animal and human fetal tissues was unleashing devastating plagues of chronic diseases.” As we have pointed out, the one paper by Dr. Mikovits that generated any significant interest in the field was the 2009 Science article that was later retracted; the entire virology community believes that the conclusions of that paper were wrong, with several scientists maintaining that paper was fraudulent. As a result of this debacle, various scientists and journalists refer to Dr. Mikovits as a “discredited scientist.”
The claim that Mikovits’ 2009 paper showed that the use of fetal tissues was “unleashing devastating plagues of chronic diseases” is completely baseless. It is also claimed that “Her 1991 doctoral thesis revolutionized the treatment of HIV/AIDS.” This claim was investigated by Enserink and Cohen. They concluded that “Her PhD thesis had no discernible impact on the treatment of HIV/AIDS.” Dr. Mikovits’ scientific career was reasonable but not exceptionally distinguished until 2009, when she published the Lombardi et al. paper in Science that sparked great interest, as we reviewed at length. The subsequent failure to replicate those claims led to retraction of the paper; our current understanding that the claims made in that paper were completely wrong and possibly fraudulent did serious damage to Mikovits’ professional reputation.
Dr. Mikovits admitted in fall 2012 that “There is no evidence that XMRV is a human pathogen” (she had no choice, as that was the result of a large experiment on which she was a co-author). The fact that she now repeats these discredited claims about XMRV, and about harmful effects of human and animal fetal tissue in research, should lead anyone to doubt statements that she makes about viruses and vaccines.
Her claims about vaccines stem from this 2009 paper. She speculates that XMRV must have ‘jumped’ from mice to humans after vaccine trials were carried out on mice. She further hypothesizes that many other animal viruses and retroviruses have also been transferred to humans after they were carried in vaccines. Mikovits asserts that once people get vaccinated, these contaminants may be absorbed in their blood. They can remain dormant for long periods of time; however, they either directly cause diseases in humans, or they weaken the immune system. When these individuals are later exposed to a disease, they are likely to become more seriously ill than individuals with healthy immune systems.
Mikovits’ claims are disputed by all mainstream scientists, who say that if these materials were carried in vaccines, we could identify them. The fact is that we are not carrying viral material from chickens, mice or monkeys in our blood. However, Judy Mikovits’ assertions are welcomed by two different anti-vaxxer factions. The first group claims that vaccines are dangerous, that they do more harm than good, and that they are causally linked to conditions such as autism or chronic fatigue syndrome. Mikovits now claims that products such as the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine cause autism, and further that the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine (DTP) has caused brain damage in children. She also asserts that the vaccine that prevents cervical cancer is causing conditions such as sterility, brain damage or death in many young people.
A second anti-vaxxer faction asserts that vaccines are unnecessary or counter-productive. They argue that people with healthy immune systems are able to fight off any infectious diseases. They further maintain that vaccination produces only a weak, temporary defense against these diseases. However, “natural” products (apple cider vinegar, mega-doses of Vitamin C, homeopathic remedies, …) will provide a healthy immune system, and enable people to be exposed to an infectious agent without much harm; that person will then experience a “strong, permanent” immunity. For example, Mikovits now surmises that the people who die from AIDS are those who contract HIV, but because of their weakened immune system are unable to prevent the transition to full-blown AIDS. The most likely cause of their weakened immune system? XMRV, of course!
2. Where Did the SARS-CoV-2 Virus Originate?
In the Plandemic video, Dr. Mikovits asserts that “you can’t say that [this virus] was naturally occurring if it was by way of the laboratory. So it’s very clear this virus was manipulated. This family of viruses was manipulated and studied in a laboratory where the animals were taken into the laboratory, and this is what was released, whether deliberate or not. That cannot be naturally occurring.” She further claims that the virus must have been studied either at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, North Carolina, or the Wuhan (China) Institute of Virology.
In fact, researchers say that the closest known virus to SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus causing the current pandemic) is a bat coronavirus. That was identified by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is estimated that the “evolutionary distance” between the bat virus and SARS-CoV-2 is between 20 and 80 years. Researchers claim that the SARS-CoV-2 virus shows no signs that it was manipulated by scientists. Figure 5 shows a coronavirus particle with the characteristic ‘spike’ proteins shown in red.
3. What Will Happen if Scientists Successfully Create a Vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 Virus?
In this video Dr. Mikovits claims that if a vaccine is created and made mandatory, then the pharmaceutical companies and the top research scientists will earn billions. However, she then states that “And they’ll kill millions, as they already have with their vaccines. There is no vaccine currently on the schedule for any RNA virus that works.”
Cohen and Enserink comment: “Vaccines have not killed millions; they have saved millions of lives (see our blog post on Vaccination). Many vaccines that work against RNA viruses are on the market, including for influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, rabies, yellow fever and Ebola.”
4. What Other Claims Does Mikovits Make About the Pandemic?
Speaking early in the spring, Dr. Mikovits predicted that the U.S. will not experience anything like the rate of infection and death suffered in Italy. She asserts that “Italy has a very old population. They’re very sick with inflammatory disorders. They got at the beginning of 2019 an untested new form of influenza vaccine that had four different strains of influenza, including the highly pathogenic H1N1. That vaccine was grown in a cell line, a dog cell line. Dogs have lots of coronaviruses.” [As of June 18, 2020, the statistics for COVID-19 are as follows: total world cases 8,522,759 and world deaths 453,714; US deaths 120,353 (364/million population); Italy deaths 34,514 (571/million population). Source: WorldOMeter coronavirus page.]
Here, Dr. Mikovits is confusing research that is done with cell lines with vaccines that are produced for the public. Basic research on viruses is often done with cell lines from animals such as mice and dogs. However, the mass production of vaccines for humans is generally done by growing them in chicken embryos; occasionally a cell line such as Vero E6, which was isolated from green monkeys, is used. Dr. Jennifer Kasten states that “If any of Mikovits’ claims were true, we might see monkey or chicken viral contaminants – but we don’t.”
Dr. Mikovits also claims that wearing a mask not only does not help, but it actually makes you more likely to develop the disease. “Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus. You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions, and if it happens to be SARS-CoV-2, then you’ve got a big problem.” Furthermore, she states that a person wearing a mask is re-inhaling carbon dioxide, “a toxic gas.” Researchers say that both claims are nonsense. The air that we breathe out contains 16% oxygen, whereas the air we breathe in contains 21% oxygen. So you are not in any danger by re-inhaling air that you have breathed into a mask. Also, you can’t make yourself sicker by re-breathing droplets of virus that you just exhaled. First, if the coronavirus is in your body, you are already sick; second, exposing the droplets to the air does not re-energize the virus but weakens it.
Finally, Mikovits criticized “stay at home” orders that forbade people to gather on public beaches. “Why would you close the beach? You’ve got sequences in the soil, in the sand. You’ve got healing microbes in the ocean in the salt water. That’s insanity.” We have not been able to find anyone who understands her claims about “sand and soil sequences.” Furthermore, there is no evidence of any microbes in the ocean that can cure COVID-19.
5. Additional Claims Made in Plandemic:
In the video Plandemic, there are also claims made by various doctors, most of them unnamed. One of them asserts that the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have been greatly inflated. One of the statements made in support of this allegation is that doctors are being “bribed” to label cases as coronavirus. The claim is made that a hospital receives a “bounty” of $13,000 per patient if the cause of admission is listed as COVID, and that there is an increase to $39,000 per patient if they are placed on a ventilator. The doctor implies that this incentivizes hospitals to mis-identify patients as having the coronavirus. This statement is deliberately misleading. Medicare calculates the average cost incurred by a hospital for various conditions. They reimburse that amount to the hospitals, rather than having the hospital bill them for every swab and Band-Aid. Medicare calculates the average rate for coronavirus at $13,000, and if patients are put on a ventilator it rises to $39,000. Hospital staff are expected to correctly document the cause of each admission. This is not a “bounty,” and it should not inflate the number of coronavirus cases.
A “Dr. Erickson” also appears on the Plandemic video. Among other things, he asserts that he and his partner do not wear masks “because they understand biology.” In addition, he argues that “stay-at-home” orders actually increase the spread of coronavirus cases. His claim is that when people shelter at home, their immunity decreases, making them more susceptible to the disease once they venture out again. Dr. Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto, said that people’s immune systems do not change because they aren’t being exposed to germs. “That really is rubbish and there’s zero evidence for it. Your immune system develops over decades in response to exposure to all kinds of pathogens and antigens. This doesn’t occur over a period of two months so you’re not going to suddenly be vulnerable to all kinds of pathogens.”
Finally, both Mikovits and other doctors interviewed in the Plandemic video enthusiastically promote the drug hydroxychloroquine. They emphasize that this drug has been FDA-approved (yes, but for use against malaria, lupus and other ailments, not for the coronavirus). This particular medication became extremely popular after President Trump continued to talk it up at several of the Coronavirus Daily Briefings. Apparently Trump’s interest in it stemmed from the fact that TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz provided rave reviews after this drug was used to treat a handful of patients in France. Even though Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned that these reports were “anecdotal,” (see our blog post on Science Denial and the Coronavirus), Trump not only continued to talk up this drug, but he even notified reporters that he was taking this medicine as a preventive measure. Figure 6 shows some hydroxychloroquine tablets.
A recent study of nearly 1,400 patients at a New York hospital found that those who received hydroxychloroquine had no better outcomes than those who were not given the drug. The number of participants in this study was more than 10 times the number in any prior study of COVID-19 patients. After using statistical techniques to account for differences between the cohort of patients, researchers found that “patients who received hydroxychloroquine had the same risk of intubation or death as patients who did not receive the drug.” They concluded that “Hospitalized patients with COVID-19 should not be routinely treated with hydroxychloroquine.” It is also the case that hydroxychloroquine treatment is associated with serious side effects for patients with certain conditions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had previously provided an emergency-use allowance of hydroxychloroquine; after this study was released, the FDA has now cancelled the allowance for this drug to be used in combatting COVID-19.
But rave reviews of hydroxychloroquine are typical of those found in Plandemic. Strong claims are made that are either completely at odds with mainstream science, or that are backed up by little or no corroborating evidence. In particular, Judy Mikovits makes sweeping statements that she is the victim of a vast conspiracy on the part of some of the most prestigious scientists in the health community. Once again she presents little or no evidence to support her claims. And while Plandemic goes to considerable lengths to present something that looks like a documentary, no attempt was made to contact figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is the subject of slanderous accusations by Dr. Mikovits.
The Book Plague of Corruption:
The book Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science, by Judy Mikovits and Kent Heckenlively, was published in 2020 by Skyhorse Publishing. It rocketed up near the top of the Amazon book sales, buoyed in large part by the tremendous public response to the video Plandemic, which stars Dr. Mikovits. In the book, as in the video, Dr. Mikovits presents herself as a courageous seeker of the truth. At various points in the book, she compares herself to Galileo, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Jefferson. The self-portrait that she paints is of a person of unimpeachable moral standards, who is dealing with colleagues who are frequently incompetent and/or treacherous. We will review several claims made in this book.
Plague of Corruption describes Judy Mikovits’ life and career, but focuses on research that she, her Ph.D. mentor Frank Ruscetti, and others published in Science in 2009 (V.C. Lombardi et al. Science 326, 585-589 (2009)). As we have discussed, that paper generated great attention in the field of virology. However, the claims of that paper have been completely discredited by later, much larger studies involving all of the virologists who were studying this phenomenon. Eventually the editors of Science retracted that paper. Here are some of the topics that are treated in Plague of Corruption.
1. Conspiracy Theories and the XMRV Fiasco:
We have earlier reviewed the mainstream consensus regarding Mikovits’ work, especially her controversial 2009 Science paper on XMRV mouse retroviruses and chronic fatigue syndrome. The scientific community is convinced that the claim of finding XMRV in human populations, with a particularly strong concentration in patients with CFS/ME, was either the result of sloppy research techniques or even fraud.
However, as told by Dr. Mikovits, her discovery was sidelined due to a conscious decision on the part of top researchers to discredit both the research and her own reputation. She claims that a group of top virologists conspired to “assassinate” her reputation as a courageous truth-teller. Mikovits alleges that the research establishment did not want the public to lose confidence in the safety of the blood supply.
Mikovits also claims that this cabal of scientists and administrators is determined to continue with mass vaccinations of the populace. She asserts that her research has shown the grave danger of vaccination. When research is carried out on animals such as mice or monkeys in the first stages of vaccine trials, Mikovits maintains that pieces of genetic material (such as the XMRV retroviruses from mice) end up in the vaccine. When people are vaccinated, these retroviruses are then transferred to humans. In Mikovits’ theory, these retroviruses can remain in the blood for long periods of time; later, they can be re-activated and cause many diseases; or they can damage the immune system so that the patient is unable to fight off a pathogen. For example, Mikovits asserts that “HIV does not cause AIDS.” In her (discredited) theory, the only people with HIV who develop AIDS and die do so because their immune system is already compromised, presumably by retroviruses in their system.
She also asserts that the current COVID-19 pandemic was the result of flu vaccines administered in 2014, that damaged the immune systems and made the recipients of those flu shots more susceptible to the current coronavirus. Mikovits asserts that “The more vaccines you receive as a child, the more likely you are to have a neurological problem.” The medical community certainly does not accept that verdict. The description by Mikovits of her XMRV research and its debunking is totally contradictory to the story accepted by mainstream scientists.
From Mikovits’ point of view, the original culprit is Robert Silverman, a collaborator on her original XMRV experiment and a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic. Her claim is that Silverman had produced an artificial retrovirus by recombinant techniques, and that this screwed up the analysis of their samples. Next, she asserts that Prof. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University was brought in to oversee the confirmation study of the Blood Working Group, and later the large-scale 2012 collaboration, expressly to refute her work and destroy her reputation. Mikovits notes that Lipkin was involved in studies that first debunked the assertion by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that the MMR vaccine was associated with the development of autism. Mikovits refers to the now-disbarred Wakefield as “our greatest scientific martyr.”
In his introduction to Plague of Corruption, leading anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr. claims that after discovering XMRV in the blood of patients with CFS, Mikovits suspected that XMRV might be inherited. So she tested 17 children who had mothers with CFS, and her claim was that she found XMRV in the blood of 14 of them. Mikovits claimed that “many patients with CFS had children with autism.” Kennedy claims that this dovetails with “parental reports of autistic regression following vaccination.” Kennedy’s statement derives from anecdotal information from Andrew Wakefield’s sensational paper on vaccination and autism (the paper is now retracted, and Wakefield was subsequently disbarred as a doctor in Britain). And remember that in the 2011 Lipkin study, no XMRV was found in any of 300 samples! [Note: Mikovits and Kennedy are raising different and contradictory issues with vaccines. As we will see later, it is common for conspiracy theorists to harbor contradictory beliefs; but since both Mikovits and Kennedy’s claims are bogus, this doesn’t really matter.]
According to Judy Mikovits, three of the best-known American scientists were directly involved in the alleged cover-up and trashing of her reputation. These were Harold Varmus, Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci. Let’s review the credentials of these three scientists.
Harold Varmus shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes. Varmus served as the Director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993-1999. In 2010 he became Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a position that he held until 2015. Judy Mikovits asserts that Harold Varmus was brought in to head NCI in 2010 specifically “to get Frank Ruscetti [Mikovits’ collaborator and thesis advisor] under control.” Her reasoning? Varmus was being paid much more in his previous job, so the only possible reason for him taking the NCI directorship was to discredit Ruscetti and Mikovits. In reality, Varmus accepted President Obama’s nomination for this important position.
Francis Collins is one of the premier medical scientists in the world. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the National Medal of Science in 2008. In 2020 he received the Templeton Prize for his work as a scientist coupled with his religious faith. Collins was also a leader of the Human Genome Project. According to Mikovits, Collins was responsible for requesting a confirmation study of the XMRV research. In Plague of Corruption, Mikovits states that she can’t believe anyone would require a confirmation study of her work; however, she does not mention the fact that several groups (two of them that included Mikovits herself) were unable to replicate her 2009 study.
The third “villain” in Mikovits’ tale is Anthony Fauci. One of the world’s top specialists on infectious diseases, Fauci has been Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984. He has been active in public health issues in the U.S. for the past 50 years, and has been an advisor to every American president since Ronald Reagan. Fauci’s Wikipedia bio describes him as “one of the most trusted medical figures in the country.” He has made contributions to HIV/AIDS research and other immunodeficiencies, both as a scientist and as the head of the NIAID at the NIH. During the period from 1983 to 2002 Fauci was one of the world’s most-cited researchers in scientific journals. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Anthony Fauci claims that he has never met Judy Mikovits, although he has indirectly had some interactions with Mikovits. At the time she was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute, Mikovits was the principal investigator on a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That grant would have been managed by the WPI Institute. When she was let go at WPI, the agency would have had a choice whether to continue the award to Dr. Mikovits, or to change the grant and have it managed by the remaining research scientists at WPI. The decision was made to leave the grant with the WPI. Mikovits sees this as proof that Fauci, as director of NIAID, was prejudiced against her. However, it is quite possible that the agency simply decided to leave the award at WPI since at least temporarily, Mikovits had no connection with an institution and would not be able to continue her research. We have found no evidence that Fauci was directly involved in this decision. In a previous 2014 book Plague, Mikovits also claims that Dr. Fauci sent her an e-mail barring her from the offices of the National Institute of Health. Fauci denies ever sending such an e-mail, claiming “I have no idea what she is talking about;” he also states that a search of his entire e-mail record revealed no such document.
2. Other Alleged Conspiracies:
In her book, Mikovits makes a number of allegations regarding the fate of some of her fellow scientists. For example, a scientist named Jeff Bradstreet had been an advocate for a link between vaccines and autism (Bradstreet had a stepson with autism). On June 19, 2015 Bradstreet was found dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. Although the official cause of death was listed as suicide, Mikovits strongly suggests that Bradstreet was murdered. A second example was Dr. Timothy Cunningham, who apparently committed suicide by drowning in 2018. Mikovits speculates that Dr. Cunningham may have been killed because he is reputed to have expressed concerns over the number of people dying during flu season.
We will focus here on the case of Dr. Kuan Teh-Jeang, because it demonstrates the willingness of Mikovits to engage in unfounded flights of speculation. Teh-Jeang was a virologist who was editor-in-chief of the journal Retrovirology. He was also the second in command to Anthony Fauci at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and apparently was a strong opponent of Mikovits’ claims that XMRV was the cause of CFS and was found in the blood of millions of Americans. Mikovits says she heard several accounts of Teh-Jeang’s suicide; “The last story I heard was that he killed himself by jumping off the four-story parking garage at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.” Her response was: “Really? You kill yourself by jumping thirty feet to the pavement? It might kill you, but there’s also going to be a whole lot of pain.”
That is not such a ridiculous story. A colleague at our university with mental health issues committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a parking garage. Indeed, jumping from a bridge or building is sufficiently common that the Centre for Suicide Prevention has an entry called “’Jumping’ and Suicide.” But Dr. Mikovits goes on to theorize why Dr. Teh-Jeang committed suicide. Although he was an outspoken critic of her research, she asserts “I think Teh-Jeang was troubled … he started to figure it out [that Mikovits’ claims were correct] … He’d start to discuss his concerns with a few close friends … like Tony Fauci.” Mikovits further surmises that Fauci tried unsuccessfully to convince Teh-Jeang that she was wrong. She writes “I strongly believe that an impasse was reached between Fauci and his second in command. What happened after that point? … Was Teh-Jeang shamed by what he’d done? … Or did Fauci, after it was clear to him that Teh-Jeang could not be turned, place a call and give an order?”
The reader will realize that, on the basis of zero evidence, Judy Mikovits has concocted a fantastic tale that Dr. Teh-Jeang died because he had concluded that her research claims (which he strongly opposed) were correct. She further assumes that Teh-Jeang relayed his change of heart to Anthony Fauci and they argued over her work. Finally, either Dr. Teh-Jeang committed suicide over remorse because he had unfairly impugned Mikovits’ research, or Fauci had him killed. As far as we can tell, there is no evidence for any of these wild hypotheses; in fact, Dr. Mikovits’ suggestions are quite similar to those of people suffering from paranoid delusions.
We would find it hard to believe any claims by someone capable of these flights of imagination. Unfortunately, this is typical of many of the tales that circulate in anti-vaccination circles. In fact, in 2018 Judy Mikovits received the Jeff Bradstreet Courage in Medicine Award from the Autism One conference; the idea is that Bradstreet was murdered by the scientific establishment to cover up the link between vaccines and autism; Mikovits received the Bradstreet Award for allegedly being blackballed and even jailed as the target of a sinister public health conspiracy.
In his Foreword to Plague of Corruption, Robert Kennedy Jr. places Judy Mikovits alongside a group of plucky scientists whose work was denigrated by the establishment. He then recites a number of issues with vaccines over the years. On the whole, vaccines are extremely safe. As is reviewed in our blog post on Vaccination, the practice of vaccination has saved millions, and possibly billions, of lives. In the last 100 years before it was eradicated from the Earth, smallpox alone is estimated to have killed 300 million people. In fact, it can be argued that vaccination is the single most effective innovation in health care.
However, vaccination is not 100% free of risk; further, there have been some cases where vaccines have caused harm, at least temporarily. The CDC maintains a Web page that summarizes known cases of harm caused by vaccines. We shall review a couple of these incidents. The most serious such case is called the Cutter Incident. In 1955, some samples of the polio vaccine administered to the public mistakenly contained live polio virus. Over 250 cases of polio were believed to have been caused by this error. All known cases were apparently caused by vaccine from Cutter Laboratories. The vaccine was recalled as soon as the cases of polio were detected. Polio might have joined smallpox in being completely eradicated from society, except that polio-vaccination campaigns have bogged down in a few Third World countries that are experiencing conflict.
In the mid-1970s there arose a controversy over whether infants had suffered harm after receiving DTP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccine, particularly in Britain. A report from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital claimed that roughly 36 children had experienced the onset of neurologic conditions following administration of the vaccine. This was followed by considerable controversy over the respective benefits and risks of DTP shots. Much of the evidence was circumstantial, although a few doctors were willing to claim that the adverse circumstances began shortly after administration of the DTP shot.
A group of parents waged a lobbying campaign that asserted the DTP shots were potentially harmful, while the Joint Commission on Vaccination and Immunization in the UK claimed that the DTP vaccine had almost no adverse effects. Initially the parent group gained considerable public support and the rate of DTP vaccination in the UK fell dramatically. However, when three major pertussis epidemics followed in subsequent years, the tide of public opinion turned against the lobbying group. Eventually a major study identified every child in the UK between 2 and 36 months that was hospitalized for neurological conditions, and studied whether there was an association with DTP inoculation. Results indicated that the risk was extremely small. This led to a national campaign advocating that children receive the DTP vaccine.
Since 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reviewed the safety data from HPV vaccine administration since 2007 (to prevent against cervical cancer), and considers these vaccines to be extremely safe. The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS) assessed comprehensive literature reviews and new data looking at a possible link between the HPV vaccine and various adverse outcomes. The committee “saw no evidence for a causal association between HPV vaccine and these conditions.”
So there have been some instances where vaccines were incorrectly formulated, or they had significant side effects that had not been anticipated. Those producing and testing vaccines should constantly strive for as few adverse reactions as possible. However, a reasonable cost-benefit analysis would conclude that overall, the practice of vaccination has been exceptionally effective against a host of serious diseases.
Why was the video Plandemic so popular?
In May 2020, the video Plandemic exploded across social media. In the first two weeks after it was first uploaded to YouTube, the video was viewed more than two million times, as is shown in Figure 11. This can be compared to other “viral” videos, such as the reunion of the staff of “The Office,” that garnered 400,000 views, and the release of information regarding possible UFO sightings, which got one million viewings in its first two weeks.
In addition to Judy Mikovits, the Plandemic video featured a few other doctors and chiropractors. The claims they made about the origin of the coronavirus, the dangers posed to society by widespread vaccination, and the most effective methods to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus were so explosive, and so contrary to the recommendations from mainstream scientists, that the video has been removed from YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, among other social media platforms. In addition, in April a GoFundMe site was created to raise money to amplify Dr. Mikovits’ message. GoFundMe removed the site, explaining that it violated the terms of service for campaigns that are “fraudulent, misleading, inaccurate, dishonest, or impossible.”
It appears that Plandemic created a “perfect storm” as it was spread on the sites of various disparate groups. First, the video received widespread support from the anti-vaccination lobby. Although Dr. Mikovits denies that she is an anti-vaxxer, a good portion of her message is devoted to unfounded claims that vaccinations are inherently dangerous. In addition, Dr. Mikovits asserts that the more vaccinations a person gets, the more likely they are to suffer neurological damage. Earlier she also called for a five-year moratorium on vaccination. Despite her denials, Judy Mikovits is a classic anti-vaxxer.
Furthermore, Dr. Mikovits claims that many people were exposed to the coronavirus when they received a flu shot in 2014. This statement is false: the current coronavirus is different from any prior virus. However, every year virologists have to guess what strains of flu will be prevalent. Their decision must be made a year in advance, in order to produce enough vaccines for the population (their guess is based on the strains of flu prevalent in the Southern Hemisphere). Some years their guesses are rather accurate; however, in other years the flu strain either evolves or a different strain altogether is dominant. In 2014 the flu vaccine was quite ineffective against the dominant strain of flu in the Northern Hemisphere.
Dr. Mikovits’ message resonated strongly with the anti-vaxxer community, which is fairly small but very proactive in promoting their message. In addition, Dr. Mikovits’ self-image of a courageous scientist dealing with a hostile science bureaucracy is also quite appealing to anti-vaxxers. In fact, in her book Plague of Corruption Dr. Mikovits compares the treatment that she has received with the treatment of Andrew Wakefield. Andrew Wakefield is a former British physician (now disbarred), who caused a sensation when he claimed to have discovered a direct link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccines (MMR).
A detailed review of Dr. Wakefield and his allegations can be found in our blog post on Vaccination. To summarize, since Wakefield’s original claim, the issue of a possible link between vaccination and autism may have been studied more extensively than any other public health issue. By now meta-studies involving millions of patients have been carried out around the world, and absolutely no link has been discovered between vaccinations and autism. Furthermore, Dr. Wakefield’s original work has now been shown to be fraudulent. He failed to reveal to his co-authors that he was being supported financially by law firms who looked to cash in on lawsuits by parents of children with autism, and he had also filed a patent for a childhood vaccine that would compete with the MMR shots.
However, in her book Mikovits repeats the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. She also claims that children have been brain-damaged after receiving the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine. Finally, she makes the following claim (with no evidence) regarding the vaccine that prevents cervical cancer: “The Gardasil vaccine is now destroying the lives of so many young girls and boys, often making them sterile. It paralyzes some of them and kills others.”
Dr. Mikovits has also been championed by groups that advocate for “natural” remedies for diseases, rather than medical products. For example, she has been described as a heroine by the site Real Farmacy, which introduces her story in the following terms: “If you have been following stories in recent years of scientists and researchers who make discoveries that are threatening to the Deep State and the bottom line of Big Pharma, you will have seen the pattern before. Those doctors are often ‘persuaded’ to recant their studies, offered bribes or other benefits to distance themselves from or even destroy their data, and even threatened with jail time or, if a legal case is too difficult to fabricate against them, they may simply be killed.”
“Such is the tale of molecular biologist Judy A. Mikovits, PhD, in the disturbing true story first detailed in this Natural News article that included the video below of how she was thrown in prison for research that led to the discovery that deadly retroviruses have been transmitted to twenty-five million Americans through human vaccines … It was not long after the implications from the paper became clear and the Deep State saw the threat that was being posed to the vaccine industry that their powerful mechanisms of cover-up, obfuscation, and deception were activated.”
Another reason for the popularity of the Plandemic video and Judy Mikovits’ book is that her supporters see her as a plucky champion for the truth. First of all, she claims to be fighting against Big Pharma, a group whose reputation is certainly low. Second, she has successfully presented herself as a victim of retribution from the community. After she was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute, she was accused of taking materials from that institute (her lab notebooks and computer material). The fact that she was then accused of being a fugitive from justice, and was jailed temporarily after she was apprehended in California seems like overkill; her supporters see this as proof that she was unfairly treated. Dr. Mikovits asserts that the notebooks and lab material that she was accused of taking from the WPI Institute were “planted” in her room by her enemies. And the fact that the Plandemic video was banned by Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo is seen by many as evidence that her story is being suppressed.
In that video, Dr. Mikovits and her fellow scientists and physicians make scientific claims that appear to be completely false, and they advocate behavior (i.e., not wearing a mask in public, not sheltering at home) that could be dangerous to the health of those watching the film. Nevertheless, many people are opposed to banning the video, as they see this as a First Amendment issue. The fact that it has been banned on several platforms is certainly an inducement for people to watch this ‘forbidden’ film, and convinces them that the Plandemic video is being suppressed to prevent people from discovering the truth about vaccines and the coronavirus.
In addition to promotion of Plandemic by anti-vaccination activists, that video has also been pushed by groups that are active in spreading conspiracy theories. On April 19 Zach Vorhies, a former YouTube employee who has recently actively worked with the group QAnon, set up a GoFundMe campaign, requesting “Help me amplify Pharma Whistleblower Judy Mikovits” (Mr. Vorhies appears in Figure 12 ). QAnon is behind a series of increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories. We reviewed QAnon and its activities in our blog post on Science Denial and the Coronavirus.
In ordinary times, right-wing conspiracy theories such as QAnon would occupy the murky depths of the Dark Web, and would be unlikely to receive widespread publicity. However, the message from these quarters is now amplified considerably as groups which include The Gateway Pundit, Alex Jones’ Infowars and The Epoch Times are now part of Donald Trump’s ‘base.’ Because of this connection, messages from these groups are much more likely to be picked up by organizations such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and given widespread distribution.
In the case of Plandemic, Judy Mikovits argues that her reputation has been destroyed and her scientific breakthroughs have been suppressed by the scientific establishment. In particular, Dr. Mikovits targets Anthony Fauci as the ringleader of this powerful organization. This has a special appeal due to the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Fauci was a prominent member of President Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force. As such, he (along with fellow scientist Dr. Deborah Birx) was responsible for articulating the best available scientific evidence regarding the seriousness of the pandemic, and to give medical opinions on the best steps to take in combating the disease or determining when and how to re-open the economy.
Since Donald Trump treated daily televised coronavirus briefings as a combination of scientific data and re-election campaigning, and because of Trump’s well-known hostility to science and his penchant for lying, these briefings often featured contradictory statements from Trump and the scientists. This was exacerbated by the determination of right-wing pundits to validate every claim made by Trump, no matter how far-fetched. By the middle of March, it had become clear that the inaction and chaos around the Trump administration’s handling of the epidemic meant that the number of deaths in the first wave would be tens of thousands greater than they might have been with a rapid and coordinated federal response.
The right wing has attempted to frame a narrative where scientists seriously over-estimated the seriousness of the disease. They also claim that the number of COVID-19 deaths are being dramatically over-estimated (this is exactly the opposite of reputable estimates that the number of deaths have been under-estimated – see Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times op-ed column. Note that at the time of Kristof’s column, “official” US COVID deaths were listed at about 80,000, while Kristof claimed the actual total was already over 100,000). One result of this dis-information campaign has been increasing vilification of Dr. Fauci by Fox News and similar venues.
So a narrative like that of Judy Mikovits, that characterizes Anthony Fauci as a sinister figure, would definitely resonate with conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters. Mikovits portrays Anthony Fauci as a powerful establishment figure who destroys the careers of whistle-blowers like Mikovits. According to Mikovits, Fauci targeted her for two reasons: first, to profit from his own research, which would be endangered by the discoveries of Mikovits; second, Fauci allegedly took these actions to prevent the public from learning that millions of Americans were suffering and dying because vaccines were contaminated with retroviruses (which were transmitted through the population via a contaminated blood supply).
We have reviewed a number of reasons why a number of groups with nominally different points of view – the anti-vaccination community, conspiracy theorists, and right-wing opponents of scientists who disagree with President Trump — have all amplified Judy Mikovits’ message. And her tale of persecution – her arrest for taking materials from her former employer, the failure to reproduce her research claims, and the banning of the video Plandemic – casts her as a sympathetic figure, and is used by her allies as proof that she is the target of a coalition of powerful scientists and Big Pharma, bent on suppressing the truth about vaccines and disease. However, people have now produced studies of the spread of the Plandemic video and the nature of its messaging. These provide us with more tools to analyze the video, those who produced it, and those who have helped to spread it and publicize it over social media.
John Cook, Sander van der Linden, Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich Ecker point out that that Plandemic video follows precisely what they have listed as the “seven distinctive traits of conspiratorial thinking” in their “Conspiracy Theory Handbook.” We will briefly list each of these traits and show how they fit the arguments presented in the Plandemic video.
1. The arguments are internally contradictory.
Plandemic makes several contradictory claims. First, it states that the coronavirus originated or was manipulated in a lab in Wuhan, China, and was released in 2019. Then it asserts that people already received the virus from vaccines that circulated in 2014.
2. “Official” accounts are faked, and are sustained by a large conspiratorial group.
In this case, the official account is that COVID-19 is a natural phenomenon and that it requires a major disruption of our society to slow its spread. At the moment, this means that all public-health agencies and nearly all research scientists have to be part of the conspiracy.
3. The conspirators are alleged to be acting out of nefarious motives.
In Plandemic several motives are claimed. First, it is claimed that the leaders of the conspiracy (Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, the CDC, …) are acting out of greed; they intend to make billions by selling a vaccine. Second, it is claimed that they are determined to make people take vaccines rather than ‘natural’ substances that would boost the immune systems. Third, Dr. Mikovits claims to have discovered that many diseases are caused by retroviruses from animals that have been transferred to humans when animals are used for research on vaccines.
4. Conspiracy theorists are resistant to debunking.
Conspiracy theorists may abandon some of their assertions when they are disproved; however, they still retain their belief in a conspiracy. In the case of the Plandemic video, both Judy Mikovits and the producer Mikki Willis have backtracked on several of their specific allegations. However, Willis insists that a conspiracy nevertheless exists; “It’s too fishy,” he says.
5. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as victims of organized persecution.
Judy Mikovits compares herself personally to persecuted scientists like Galileo. The claim in Pandemic is that the entire world is being deceived by a vast conspiracy that is directed by the world’s leading scientists and all major public-health organizations; and this conspiracy is further reinforced by the major media.
6. Conspiracy theorists tend not to be convinced by evidence that they are wrong (this is similar to #4).
They are also unconvinced by the fact that no evidence exists that they are right. In fact, they will even maintain that the less evidence for their theory, the more effective is the conspiracy! In the Plandemic video, Judy Mikovits makes a number of shocking allegations about Anthony Fauci. She provides no corroborating evidence for any of these claims.
7. Conspiracy theorists tend to connect random events and re-interpret them as being part of an intricate causal pattern of deception.
For example, Dr. Mikovits claims that several scientists whose deaths were listed as suicides were in fact murdered, because they were about to reveal elements of the conspiracy to prevent the public from learning the truth about vaccines. She also claims that she is the victim of a campaign of persecution led by major figures in research on virology and public health.
There is a very useful post by Zarine Khazarian and Tessa Knight on Medium.com. It follows the video-sharing sites that picked up the ‘Plandemic’ video after it was de-platformed from the largest social media sites (e.g., Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo). Their article provides a detailed quantitative study of how the Plandemic video continued to spread even after it was banned from the major sites. Paradoxically, the fact that the video had been widely banned made it that much more attractive for users of ‘niche’ sites to host and disseminate that video.
Khazarian and Knight searched for the most active mentions on Twitter during the time period when the video went viral. They identified the central sites that had the most re-tweets, mentions or replies with respect to that topic. Figure 14 shows a “Twitter action network” for the hashtag #Plandemic on May 7, 2020. The size of the name for each site is proportional to the amount of action on that site. Various users are coordinating retweets of their posts to amplify their message. Many of these sites are among the most-visited QAnon sites. They retweet each other’s posts in order to amplify their message. The anti-vaxxers are strongly represented, particularly the “Collective Action Against Bill Gates” site. However, a few of these sites are popular debunkers of conspiracy theories and science deniers, such as Rachel Alter and David Gorski. YouTube is also prominent; either people were logging on in an attempt to view the now-banned video, or they were protesting the fact that it had been removed.
Figure 15 shows the public Facebook sites that showed the most rapid activity in sharing information about the Plandemic video. As you can see, several groups are prominent. Fox News with Tucker Carlson is a large site, as well as several Trump sites and groups supporting the administration (“Reopen” or “Restore” Wisconsin sites), coupled with a number of conspiracy theory sites. The anti-vaxxers appear with the “Collective Action Against Bill Gates” site. One obvious question is: were these different groups acting in concert to spread the video? After analyzing the activity, DFRLab concluded that these sites were not actually acting together in an organized fashion. However, the Plandemic video was shared and disseminated so rapidly that it looked as though the different sites were all coordinating their efforts.
Once the Plandemic video was unavailable on the major platforms, one alternate site that generated much activity was BitChute, a person-to-person site that defines itself as a “Revolutionary p2p video platform that puts respect for the individual and #freespeech first.”
Quantitative analysis of the activity on social media helps to identify the major “actors” in spreading this video, and we can speculate about their respective motives. Nonetheless, the total number of views of her Plandemic video, and the fact that Dr. Mikovits’ book was at one time #1 on the Amazon best-seller list, is still stunning. It is not entirely clear why this video has been so successful. It is particularly surprising, given the fact that Mikovits’ allegations are so explosive and she provides essentially no corroborating evidence. In the final analysis, this seems to be one of those fads that sweeps through a population – ironically, much like a virus. This is also an example of how conspiracy theories are spread by their supporters. We examined supporters of conspiracy theories and their psychological makeup in our blog post on conspiracy theory true believers.
From all available information, Judy Mikovits appears to be a fabulist. She has constructed a personal narrative where she is a plucky heroine who has uncovered deadly secrets, revealing that our citizens are at great risk from vaccines that carry retroviruses from animals. Furthermore, these viruses are being transmitted to other humans through the blood supply, which is now dangerously tainted. These facts have been suppressed by a powerful and sinister alliance of top scientists and Big Pharma, in order to maintain their vast profits and to retain public confidence in the use of vaccines.
Unfortunately for Dr. Mikovits, the truth is that she is a discredited scientist. Her big scientific “breakthrough,” the claim that her group had proved that mouse retroviruses were the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, not only was refuted by follow-up experiments, but further investigation suggested that her original experiment may have been fraudulent.
Since that time, Dr. Mikovits has gravitated to the community of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. Carl Sagan coined the phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” On this count Mikovits fails completely. Both her book and the Plandemic video contain several assertions about her major research work. However, as we have demonstrated, those claims fall apart when confronted with the facts. Mikovits also makes sweeping, incredible allegations about a conspiracy against her, led by several of the world’s top scientific researchers. But her claims against top research scientists are presented without corroborating evidence. Barring substantial additional confirmation, one should treat these as unfounded, paranoid rumors.
However, the incredible popularity of the video Plandemic and Judy Mikovits’ book are ominous signs that the path to reliable treatment and a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic could be very difficult. The video Plandemic can be viewed as the first salvo by the anti-vaccination community. Even if a successful vaccine for SARS-Cov2 is developed, tested and marketed, it is by no means clear how many people would take the vaccine. Even with a vaccine that is as reliable as humanly possible, the anti-vaxxer lobby will assert that it is harmful and/or ineffective.
And if a vaccine is rushed out without sufficient testing, it could end up actually being ineffective or even harmful. This would not only be disastrous for containing the current pandemic, but it could set the whole process of vaccination back by up to a century. With the anti-vaccination community already willing to claim (falsely) that vaccines are dangerous and/or ineffective, the stakes for a vaccine against the coronavirus are extremely high.
Here are the results of a Pew Research Survey on vaccination and views of the medical community as of June 2, 2020, as broken down by ethnicity. Figure 16 shows that while 67% of whites and 68% of Hispanics have a “mostly positive” view of medical research scientists, that number drops to 53% for black Americans. When asked to respond to “I would definitely/probably get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today,” Figure 17 shows that 74% of whites and Hispanics responded positively, while only 54% of blacks agreed with this statement.
These numbers suggest that a significant percentage of Americans (28% overall) report that they would not take a vaccine if it was available today. But the numbers for African-Americans are much lower. This is deeply concerning because to date, the death rate from COVID-19 is significantly larger for black Americans. So they are experiencing higher death rates, but at the same time report that they are less likely to take a vaccine for the coronavirus. The number of people unwilling to take a vaccine for COVID-19 (if one was available) appears to present a real challenge to bringing the current pandemic under control, even if a vaccine for the disease should be developed rather quickly.
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