As of August 1, 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of more than 4.2 million people around the world, and over 610,000 American lives; at this time, the U.S. still has more COVID-19 deaths than any other country. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the infection has been well studied; now, the Delta variant of the disease has become the dominant strain in most countries. The medical community is almost unanimous regarding how the disease is spread and the best methods for slowing the spread of the disease in the absence of vaccines – wearing masks and social distancing.
As with any health issue or scientific issue nowadays, there has also been a great amount of misinformation regarding the source of the pandemic and the seriousness of the disease. We have covered these issues in our blog series. For example, we wrote a post on science denial and the coronavirus. We also wrote a post reviewing ten false narratives about the coronavirus. In another post, we discussed why attempting to gain ‘natural’ herd immunity, in the absence of a vaccine, was a really bad idea. And we reviewed some ‘alternative science’ narratives about the pandemic, and showed that those notions had been routed by reality.
We can now categorically reject various “alternative theories” regarding the coronavirus. First, the idea that COVID-19 is a “hoax,” or that it is “merely the flu” has been demolished by statistics regarding the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID is significantly more deadly than a normal seasonal flu. In fact, in 2020 the average life span of an American decreased by 18 months, due almost entirely to COVID. During the largest spikes in COVID-19 cases, intensive care units at hospitals located in “hot spots” filled to capacity with people suffering serious setbacks and/or having to be intubated and put on a ventilator.
Unfortunately, the pandemic issue has become subject to partisan politics. Donald Trump was eager to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19, in order to deflect criticism for his administration’s handling of the crisis. As a result, many Republicans have criticized the actions taken to prevent the spread of the disease, or have insisted that temporary closures of businesses in order to prevent infection from spreading are violations of individual liberty. Wearing of masks has become a partisan political issue. And right-wing pundits continue to insist that chemicals such as hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin are effective treatments for COVID-19, despite large clinical studies demonstrating that these chemicals are quite ineffective against the disease.
In the first quarter of 2020, when it was obvious that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was rampaging through the population, the Trump Administration instituted a crash program called Operation Warp Speed, in order to speed up the development and production of vaccines against the virus. This resulted in two vaccines that have received emergency use authorization (EUA) in the U.S.: one from Moderna and one from Johnson & Johnson. The first vaccine to receive EUA in the U.S. was developed in Europe by Pfizer and BioNTech, without any funding from Operation Warp Speed.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use novel techniques to produce messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. These vaccines deliver instructions to our cells to build intruder proteins that mimic the spike proteins associated with the virus, in order to stimulate the body’s immune system to produce antibodies for protection against the virus that causes COVID-19. The mRNA vaccines are not equivalent to injecting the body with a sample of the virus itself, because they omit the virus’ RNA, which is the part capable of replication inside the body. In contrast to fears expressed by many vaccine-hesitant individuals, the mRNA vaccines do not alter a person’s DNA; the mRNA does not even penetrate to the nucleus of cells, where the DNA resides. Furthermore, the mRNA vaccines are flexible, in the sense that the mRNA can be gene-edited to produce the spike proteins for a mutated variant of the virus; that flexibility contributed to the rapid success of Pfizer and Moderna, since mRNA vaccines were previously under development for other viruses. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine acts through a viral vector technique. This uses a modified form of a different virus, that once again delivers instructions to our cells to stimulate the immune system to fight off the virus that causes COVID-19.
The vaccines have proved to be highly effective against the virus. After the vaccines were rolled out in December 2020 new cases, hospitalizations and deaths fell dramatically in the U.S. And the vaccines apparently have few negative side effects. Serious vaccine side effects appear to be rare, and there have been very few deaths that appear to be caused by the vaccines. For people receiving the J&J vaccine there have been 39 reports of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) out of 13 million vaccines administered. And there have been 2 reports of TTS among Moderna recipients out of 328 million doses of that vaccine. There have been 6,340 cases of death following vaccination (out of 342 million doses, a death rate of 0.0019%), although it is not known how many of those were directly related to the vaccination.
The issue of vaccines and vaccination has also become a partisan political issue. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in July 2021, it was announced that the Biden Administration would not reach its goal that 70% of eligible Americans would receive the vaccine by August 1. That announcement was greeted with cheers. A large number of eligible Americans have not yet been vaccinated, and they tend to fall into roughly three groups (not necessarily distinct). The first group is composed of people whose vaccine hesitancy is due to a distrust of government; many black and Hispanic people fall into this group. A second group is adamant that they will never get the vaccine; this group is composed mainly of white Protestants, and is heavily skewed towards Republicans. A third group has adopted a “wait and see” attitude; for some of these people their hesitancy is due to the fact that the vaccines are being issued under emergency authorization (although the Pfizer vaccine has now been fully approved by the FDA as of August 23, 2021).
The rise of the Delta variant has dramatically changed the pandemic situation. It has led to a renewed surge of infections, with hospitals in many states at or nearing full capacity for treating severe cases, which are overwhelmingly confined to the unvaccinated. However, it is now clear that already-vaccinated people can sustain “breakthrough” cases of COVID. Furthermore, they can spread the disease to others, and the viral load for breakthrough cases is similar to that for the unvaccinated, although the symptoms are generally much less severe among the vaccinated. The Delta variant appears to spread much more rapidly than the original Alpha strain of the virus. It now appears that the Delta variant spreads as rapidly as the chickenpox. A measure of how a virus initially spreads through a population is given by the spreading rate R0: this is the average number of people likely to contract the virus from each infected person in the population. For the Alpha version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, R0 was between 2 and 3, while for the Delta variant it appears that R0 is closer to 8.
A rough estimate of the fraction F of the population that needs to have immunity (either from catching the disease or from vaccination), so that the virus cannot spread through the population but will die out, is
F = 1 – 1/R0 (1)
The relationship between F and R0 is shown in Fig. 1.
Figure 1: A graph showing the approximate relationship between the spreading rate R0 and the fraction of the population F that needs to have immunity before the virus will die out and cease spreading. Values of R0 are shown for recent epidemics.
If R0 = 3, as is roughly the case for the Alpha strain of the virus, then about 2/3 of the population needs to have immunity before the epidemic dies out. But if R0 = 8, then almost 90% of the population needs to have immunity before the virus will stop spreading. “Herd immunity” is attained when that fraction of the population is now immune. Since at present just over 50% of the American population is vaccinated, and there is substantial vaccine hesitancy in the remainder of the population, then there is essentially no chance of achieving herd immunity (i.e., stopping the Delta variant of COVID from spreading through the population) by vaccination.
A number of breakthrough cases have now been observed in vaccinated individuals. This has been studied for a recent surge of cases in Provincetown, Massachusetts. However, in vaccinated people who catch COVID, the disease appears to be much less serious than for the unvaccinated. As of August 1, 2021, 97% of people hospitalized for COVID were unvaccinated; and up to 99% of those dying from COVID were unvaccinated.
Because the pandemic has become highly politicized, vaccination rates are much lower in “red” states than in blue states. The number of new cases of COVID-19 is much higher in areas with low vaccinations than in areas where a higher percentage of the population is vaccinated. In fact, there is a striking anti-correlation between the percentage of 2020 votes for Donald Trump in a given county, and the percentage of that county that is vaccinated. This is shown in Fig. 2. With the Delta variant spreading rapidly, it appears very likely that we will experience a “pandemic of the unvaccinated;” that is, this variant is likely to spread much more rapidly, and to cause more hospitalizations and deaths, in counties that have low percentages of vaccinations. Unless these vaccination rates change dramatically, we are likely to see a “Red state pandemic” in those areas with few people vaccinated. In fact, one could argue that this is already happening. As of August 1, 2021, a strong majority of states with the highest per capita numbers of new COVID cases are states that voted for Trump in 2020. However, persistence of COVID infections among the unvaccinated may well come around to threaten the health of all Americans before long. Some among the unvaccinated will develop long-term infections, during which the rapidly replicating virus will mutate to yet new variants, some of which may be vaccine-resistant and spread rapidly among all Americans, both vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Figure 2: Scatter plot showing the percentage of vaccinated citizens in every U.S. county, as of July 19, 2021. The horizontal axis is the percent of the 2020 vote for Donald Trump in that county. The anti-correlation between these two numbers is extremely strong.
One’s view of the nature of the pandemic, the risks involved, and the efficacy of the vaccines will depend strongly on the news media and social media accounts that one is exposed to. Until recently, viewers of Fox News received reports that were dismissive of the threat posed by the pandemic. Particularly from commentators like Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, mask and social-distancing mandates were scoffed at and treated as encroachments on individual “liberty.” In addition, the safety and efficacy of the vaccines were called into question. Right-wing cable channels such as Newsmax and One America News Network have been even more strident than Fox News.
And the situation on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit is even more dire than on cable TV networks. Such sites have seen an explosion of misinformation on both the pandemic and the vaccines. In the remainder of this post, we will study some of the social media figures who produce widely influential posts that provide misinformation on the pandemic and the vaccines. We will examine material on their sites, and check it against the best scientific understanding of the situation. The intentional spread of disinformation about the COVID vaccines is by now a form of genocide, causing many tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths worldwide.
The Disinformation Dozen:
A non-profit NGO called the Center for Countering Digital Hate, or CCDH, is a group that attempts to counteract misinformation or speech that incites hatred on the Internet. In March 2021, in collaboration with the group Anti-Vax Watch (an “alliance of concerned individuals who are seeking to educate the American public about the dangers of the anti-vax industry”), they issued a report regarding COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on the Web, and in particular on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They surveyed anti-vaccine content on those sites between 1 February and 16 March 2021. The investigation found that up to 65% of social media posts that featured misinformation on COVID-19 vaccines could be traced back to just twelve social media influencers. The CCDH report claimed that this misinformation on the Web, spawned by a very small number of individuals, was responsible for “a tidal wave of disinformation.” This false information was causing people to reject vaccines or to refuse to obey masking and social-distancing orders that could dramatically slow the spread of COVID-19. CCDH called on the administrators of those platforms to ameliorate this situation by enforcing their standards against false or misleading information on their sites.
Figure 3: Cover page of the report The Disinformation Dozen: Why Platforms Must Act on Twelve Leading Online Anti-Vaxxers, issued March 2021 by the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
It was definitely a shock to realize that nearly two thirds of the false “information” on social media regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the new vaccines originated from such a small number of “influencers.” The CCDH report listed several instances where the Disinformation Dozen had violated the terms of their social media platforms. And they called for the platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to suspend the accounts of these people.
On March 25, 2021, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing regarding disinformation on social media, and the role of these platforms in promoting extremism and misinformation. At that meeting, the CEOs of major social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter claimed that they actively policed their sites and suspended groups that violated their rules.
On April 27 2021, the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law held a hearing on “How Social Media Platforms’ Design Choice Shape Our Discourse and Our Minds.” The CCDH report figured prominently in that meeting. Representatives of the major social-media platforms attended the meeting. Under questioning, the Facebook representative claimed that they had taken action after the CCDH report and removed the accounts of the twelve biggest purveyors of misinformation.
However, the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch had been accessing the social media sites to check the status of the Disinformation Dozen on various platforms. In a follow-up report issued on April 28, they reported that 10 of the 12 influencers remained active on Facebook, 9 of the 12 were still active on Instagram (a platform owned by Facebook), and 10 of the 12 still had active accounts on Twitter.
In this post, we will review four members of the so-called “Disinformation Dozen.” We will raise the following questions about these influencers. Are they indeed propagating false claims about the pandemic and vaccines? What are the arguments raised by these individuals? How successful have they been in disseminating their views? And how have their sites changed since the CCDH reports?
Joseph Mercola is an American osteopathic physician. He began his career in Schaumburg, Illinois. There his practice shifted more towards alternative medicine, and he founded the Dr. Mercola Natural Health Center. He is now headquartered in Cape Coral, Florida, where he has a significant business empire. His specialty is alternative medicine; Mercola peddles homeopathic remedies and various “natural” products that he claims will provide various benefits. Mercola has a large Internet following.
Figure 4: Dr. Joseph Mercola, osteopathic physician and purveyor of dubious information about the coronavirus and vaccines.
Various organizations have accused Mercola of making unsubstantiated claims for the products that he sells. In 2006, an article in Business Week by David Gumpert accused Mercola of using marketing practices that “rely on slick promotion, clever use of information, and scare tactics.” Business Week also claimed that Mercola “Is calling upon an unfortunate tradition made famous by the old-time snake-oil salesmen of the 1800s.” Mercola also received warnings from the FDA in 2005, 2006 and 2011 that he was making illegal claims for the ability of his products to detect, prevent and treat diseases. And the watchdog site Quackwatch has claimed that Mercola uses “unsubstantiated claims that clash with those of leading medical and public health organizations and many unsubstantiated recommendations for dietary supplements.”
Business Week may call Mercola a “snake-oil salesman,” but his tactics are thoroughly up to date. He operates out of an internet site called Mercola.com. That site in addition links to various interconnected sites that also offer health products, that Mercola claims are effective against a large number of diseases and conditions. Mercola has a tremendous reach on the Internet. It is estimated that his site has as many visitors as that of the National Institutes of Health. Mercola claims that his business operations are worth $100 million. In addition to his social media empire, Mercola is also the author of a couple of books that made the New York Times best-seller lists, including The No-Grain Diet.
At present, Mercola has over 1.7 million followers on his English Facebook page and over 1 million on his Spanish-language page. He has 300,000 followers on his Twitter page and 400,000 on his YouTube channel. The New York Times found another 17 Facebook sites that either appeared to be run by Mercola’s organization, or were closely connected to his main Website. The New York Times also reported that Mercola would often test different versions of the same message to see which one received the most “hits.” So, Joseph Mercola runs one of the more successful “natural health” sites on the Web, and in addition through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Is Joseph Mercola spreading misinformation on his social-media sites? Indeed, yes. One of Mercola’s claims is that homeopathic remedies can cure autism. This claim is contradictory to everything we know about modern medicine. See our blog post which shows that homeopathy is bogus. In addition, Mercola authored the 2006 book The Great Avian Flu Hoax. In that book, Mercola claims that the avian flu of that time was actually a conspiracy, with the media acting in concert with the medical establishment and the government in order to accrue money and power.
Mercola also pushes several theories that are at odds with the legitimate scientific and medical communities. For example, he claims that microwaving foods changes their chemistry. There is no good scientific evidence to support this claim, and much evidence that contradicts it. Mercola has also supported claims by groups denying that AIDS is caused by HIV. The mainstream medical community has concluded that there is overwhelming evidence that HIV causes AIDS. Mercola has also claimed that in innerspring mattresses, the springs amplify harmful radiation, another claim based on absolutely no solid evidence.
Not surprisingly, Mercola has gotten into trouble with the authorities for claims made on behalf of products he sells on his Website. Over the years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned Mercola for unsubstantiated claims made for his products. This includes a 2005 warning for his Living Fuel RX and Coconut Oil products; also, a 2006 warning against his Optimal Wellness Center chlorella and coconut oil preparations; and in 2011 for his Meditherm Med2000 infrared camera. The FDA claimed that this last product had no approved use as either a diagnostic or therapeutic device.
Mercola has also claimed that most brands of commercial sunscreen actually increase the risk of contracting skin cancer because of exposure to UV light from the Sun. Mercola claimed to have developed tanning beds that greatly decreased the possibility of sunburn or skin cancer, and he marketed those products on his Website. The Federal Trade Commission brought charges of false advertising on the basis of Mercola’s claims about his tanning beds. Mercola settled for $2.95 million in restitution to people who purchased his tanning beds.
Dr. Mercola is closely associated with many anti-vaccination groups. He has long claimed that flu vaccines are ineffective and/or dangerous; he pushes Vitamin D supplements to combat the flu despite contradictory clinical evidence of the ineffectiveness of Vitamin D against the flu. Mercola has been a major donor to a number of anti-vaccination organizations. His Natural Health Research Foundation has provided as much as $4 million to anti-vaxxer groups, including more than $2.9 million to the National Vaccine Information Center.
But Mercola’s disinformation campaign really shifted into high gear during the coronavirus pandemic. He has been a wellspring of bogus information about both the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, and about the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines. With the aid of employees at his headquarters in both Cape Coral, Florida and the Philippines, Mercola has, since the beginning of the pandemic, churned out over 600 articles on these subjects.
For example, one of Mercola’s earlier claims was that vaccines are dangerous due to the presence of thimoseral, a compound containing mercury that was present at very low amounts in some vaccines used for children. The claim is that this mercury compound might be responsible for a link between childhood vaccines and autism. This has been a prevalent claim raised by anti-vaxxer groups. They point to episodes where people have been poisoned by mercury in food, particularly after eating fish.
But the mercury compounds involved in the poisoning episodes were methyl mercury, whereas thimoseral contains ethyl mercury. Also, thimoseral has been removed from children’s vaccines and rates of autism continued to climb. Finally, there have been numerous studies, including meta-studies involving at least a million children, that have found absolutely no causal link between vaccines and autism. There is zero evidence of any link between childhood vaccination and autism. See our blog post on vaccination for a discussion of this issue.
Mercola has quoted (or misquoted) studies in order to suggest that masks are ineffective against slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Last year, Mercola joined with other ‘natural health’ advocates in a Web site called “Stop COVID Cold.” That site touted vitamin D supplements as promising treatments for COVID, and provided links to Mercola’s online store. This earned him a warning letter from the FDA, which stated that he had “misleadingly represented … unapproved and misbranded” products on his Website Mercola.com, claiming that they were effective treatments for COVID-19. Mercola also touted a dilute solution of hydrogen peroxide administered through a nebulizer as an effective treatment of the coronavirus. Twitter removed one of Mercola’s posts advocating the use of hydrogen peroxide, for violating their terms of service. However, Mercola continued to make such claims at other venues.
The “Disinformation Dozen” sites also contain a number of conspiracy theories. Popular topics include claims that the COVID-19 pandemic might have been a hoax. The perpetrators of this hoax vary with the conspiracy theory. Some allege that the U.S. government has fomented this, as a means of forcing people to be vaccinated. Others allege that the pandemic hoax was created by rich elites – these may include the Jews, Bill Gates or George Soros. Figure 5 shows a cartoon implying that Bill Gates has deliberately infected people with the coronavirus, in order to make money on the vaccines.
Figure 5: A cartoon falsely claiming that Bill Gates made money by deliberately infecting computers with viruses and then selling anti-virus software; the accusation is that he is doing exactly the same thing with COVID and vaccines.
I went to “Mercola.com” to see for myself the materials he has posted. Mercola had a series of YouTube videos on a number of topics; I focused on those dealing with COVID and vaccines. The first interview I came across was with Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a physician who serves a Jewish community in Monroe, N.Y. Zelenko claims to have treated thousands of patients with a mixture of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), azithromycin and zinc, with a “nearly 100%” rate of success. Zelenko notes that Dr. Harvey Risch has also endorsed HCQ as a treatment for COVID-19. However, he does not reference the large, randomized clinical trials of HCQ described in our previous post on Ten False Narratives About the Coronavirus, nor the open letter signed by Risch’s colleagues, experts in infectious diseases at Yale Public Health.
Figure 6: Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a physician who touts a mixture of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for treating COVID.
The letter from Yale infectious disease experts states: “The evidence thus far has been unambiguous in refuting the premise that HCQ is a potentially effective early therapy for COVID-19 … HCQ, alone or together with the antibiotic azithromycin, has not been shown to be effective in improving the clinical status of patients with COVID-19. Moreover, clinical trials have found that treatment with HCQ may be associated with increased risk of adverse reactions. Taken together, the scientific evidence does not support the widespread use of this drug, alone or in combination with an antibiotic … While minority opinions, anecdotal evidence, novel interpretations and challenges to orthodoxies in a field can be important, at some point, the application of the scientific method generating evidence from multiple, well-designed clinical trials and observational studies does matter and should be heard over the noise of conspiracy theories, purported hoaxes, and the views of zealots.”
The letter from the Yale faculty applies particularly to Zelenko, because he is most certainly a zealot. Furthermore, he is also a conspiracy theorist. For example, Zelenko claims that doctors and the media conspired against accepting HCQ as a treatment. He notes that the media repudiated HQC after Trump came out in support of it in March 2020, saying “There were plenty of people willing to use every possible way to vilify the president and to discredit anything that might give him a win.” Zelenko goes on to characterize what he sees as a struggle against good and evil. “There are those who want to live a life of God, conscious … Our lives have sanctity. They’re priceless and they should be preserved at all costs. And no one has the right to enslave another human being. That’s one approach. The other is [internment] … an attempt to enslave, psychologically, and even more so physically, the world population.” According to Zelenko, he is on the side of God, while the media, medical establishment and Big Pharma are on the opposite side. Zelenko has said, “What we’re really fighting for is the soul of man. God is testing us, in my opinion. Every person is being asked one simple question, either bow down to God and have the divine presence protect you or you’re going to bow down to Bill Gates.” It is not clear why Zelenko believes that God favors one man-made pharmaceutical (HCQ) over others (the COVID vaccines).
Mercola’s site was full of slickly-produced videos that combine conspiracy theories about the medical establishment and the media, combined with dubious information about COVID-19 and the vaccines, particularly the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that use mRNA techniques. One of these videos is an interview with Dr. Judy Mikovits. In an earlier blog post we discussed Dr. Mikovits and her “theories.” Dr. Mikovits endorses a theory that vaccines have been contaminated with retroviruses from mice (the retroviruses supposedly arrived there because some vaccine testing has been done on mice). She claims that these mouse retroviruses are infecting Americans who are vaccinated, as well as through transfusions (as the retroviruses have also invaded our national blood supply). As we showed, the theories of Mikovits were taken quite seriously by the U.S. medical community. They subjected her claims to a series of controlled experiments, and Mikovits participated in some of those experiments. Not only did Mikovits’ theories fail the tests, but she demonstrated her incompetence as an experimental scientist. Most reputable social media sites, including Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo, have banned Dr. Mikovits’ video Plandemic. No one should take Mikovits’ theories seriously.
Figure 7: Dr. Judy Mikovits, a conspiracy theorist regarding mouse retroviruses that she claims are contaminating vaccines and the U.S. blood supply.
Mercola also included an interview with Dr. Peter McCullough, who is Vice Chief of Internal Medicine at Baylor University Medical Center and Senior Professor of Internal Medicine at the Texas A&M Health Sciences Center. McCullough is clearly a well-known physician, but he is also the proponent of some highly controversial views about the COVID-19 pandemic and the new vaccines. For example, together with Harvey Risch, McCullough carried out tests using HCQ to treat COVID patients. They published a report that called for a protocol of medications [to treat COVID] including zinc lozenges, hydroxychloroquine, aspirin and antibiotics. The paper was published in the American Journal of Medicine in Jan. 2021. The editors of that journal have subsequently commented “What seemed reasonable last summer based on laboratory experiments has subsequently been shown to be untrue.”
Figure 8: Dr. Peter McCullough, who touts ineffective treatments for COVID-19, and who claims that vaccines released by Pfizer and Moderna will produce catastrophic side effects.
But that has not stopped McCullough from making extremely strong statements about the pandemic, treatment for COVID, and the vaccines. In November 2020, Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, stated that “The clear consensus of the medical and scientific community, based on overwhelming evidence” is that HCQ is ineffective as a treatment for COVID-19. McCullough also claims that ivermectin is an effective treatment for COVID cases. Ivermectin is a drug that has been approved for treatment of parasites such as worms and headlice. McCullough claims that there is a conspiracy to prevent the use of ivermectin to treat COVID patients; he says, “To this day, hospitals across the United States flat-out refuse to use ivermectin … There’s a mass mentality of almost intentionally harming patients. There’s absolutely no grounds for doctors and administrators … to deny patients ivermectin. There is a global collusion, specifically in U.S. hospitals, to cause as much harm and death as conceivable.”
So there’s your conspiracy theory: American hospitals are “collu[ding] to cause as much harm and death as conceivable.” So what about ivermectin – what is the evidence that it is effective in treating COVID? McCullough points to a colleague Dr. Rashtak who had used it in Florida. But this is advocacy based on “Medicine by testimonial.” A doctor uses a drug and notes that people recover afterwards. The scientific way to answer questions about efficacy of a drug is through a large-sample randomized controlled test. Groups of patients are given the drug in question, while other “control” groups are given a placebo, in double-blinded tests so that neither the experimenters nor the volunteer patients know beforehand which individuals received the medication. Such trials are able to distinguish between actual efficacy, and the hunch or whim of an individual physician.
Early tests of ivermectin were complicated by the presence of an Egyptian controlled trial that claimed to include a large number of patients. That trial, which seemed to show tremendous improvement using ivermectin, has now been retracted and is thought to be fraudulent. When that trial is removed, meta-studies of several different experiments now show that ivermectin has no benefit in treating COVID. For example, a recent meta-study of randomized trials of ivermectin by Roman et al. concludes “Ivermectin did not reduce all-cause mortality, length of stay or viral clearance vs. controls in COVID-19 patients with mostly mild disease. Ivermectin is not a viable option to treat COVID-19 patients.” So, Dr. McCullough appears to be a respected physician, but a lousy scientist. He is willing to make exceptionally strong statements based on hunches from his colleagues. Furthermore, he accuses the medical establishment of conspiracies to prevent the use of these meds.
But what about the new vaccines against COVID? First, McCullough claims that the dramatic reduction that we have seen in COVID hospitalizations and deaths (at least before the spread of the new Delta variant) was due, not to the vaccines, but to his paper recommending at-home treatment of COVID. McCullough claims that the use of his at-home recommendations “Basically crushed the U.S. curve. We were on schedule to have 1.7 to 2.1 million fatalities in the United States, as estimated by the CDC and others. We cut it off at about 600,000 … We have saved millions of lives, spared millions and millions of hospitalizations.”
This is a strange statement, considering that the drop in cases and deaths occurred directly when the new vaccines were being administered to millions of Americans, and it occurred most prominently at first among the senior citizens who were first to receive the vaccines. And McCullough claims that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, that use mRNA techniques, are not only not helpful but are actually extremely dangerous. He claims that the medical establishment is deliberately ignoring his “at-home” treatment regimen as a means of “Promoting fear, suffering, hospitalization and death.”
McCullough claims that there are overwhelming statistics that show dangerous side effects and even death from the new vaccines. (A recent Israeli analysis of a very large sample of vaccine recipients and unvaccinated individuals shows that the risk of dangerous side-effects is much greater from COVID infection than from the vaccine itself.) Furthermore, he claims that the FDA and CDC are providing “nothing with respect to safety of individuals.” He claims that in some individuals, the “pathogenic” spike protein will “ravage the body” wherever that protein is produced. McCullough predicts a future epidemic of “local brain injury … myocarditis and cardiac injury … liver injury … lung injury … and kidney injury” caused by the mRNA vaccines. The COVID vaccination campaign, he claims “Will go down in history as the biggest medical biological product safety catastrophe in human history, by far. There’s nothing close.” In other words, he is predicting that the body’s immune system will often be unsuccessful in producing antibodies that attach to and kill the spike proteins. If this were true, the vaccines would also be of limited efficacy in preventing serious COVID infections, but the statistics of ongoing hospitalizations and deaths provide compelling evidence that the vaccine efficacy is very high.
One can imagine the impact of Dr. McCullough’s predictions on anyone who does not have a working knowledge of this field. First, let’s remember that McCullough’s endorsements of both HCQ and ivermectin for COVID-19 treatment are in complete conflict with the best evidence on these drugs. Next, it should be obvious that McCullough is willing to make apocalyptic statements based on flimsy evidence. Let’s review our experience with the recent mRNA vaccines, which have been administered to hundreds of millions of people.
There have been some short-term negative effects from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but for the most part these do not seem to be much larger than the incidence of these effects in the general unvaccinated population. We know of very few deaths that have been directly attributed to the vaccines.
And what about the efficacy of the vaccines? At present, with the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus becoming the dominant strain, 97% of those hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated, and almost 99% of deaths are among the unvaccinated. At least in the short term, the vaccines appear to be extremely effective, although there are some signs that the vaccines are somewhat less effective against the Delta variant. But what about the predictions by McCullough of disastrous long-term effects from the mRNA vaccines? We do not know of any such effects, nor can we evaluate claims that the vaccines will make women sterile. When evaluating Dr. McCullough’s predictions about the vaccines, we should remember his terrible track record in touting hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as effective treatments for COVID.
Mercola: The Aftermath
Despite the number of times that Mercola has published false or misleading information on his social media sites, in spring 2021 when the CCDH study was published, Mercola had yet to be banned from any sites such as Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. However, the proprietors of those sites claim that they are cracking down on purveyors of misinformation. Facebook claims that they have labeled several of Mercola’s posts as false, banned advertising on his main page and removed some of his pages after they violated its policies. Twitter states that they have also labeled some of Mercola’s pages as false and taken down others. And YouTube claims that they have not muzzled Mercola because he is not making money from ads on his videos.
One would think that social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would be cracking down on charlatans such as Mercola, particularly when so many Americans are dying as a result of misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines. In Mercola’s case, perhaps it is because he is a bit more careful than many spreaders of misinformation. He often hedges a bit, presenting medical misinformation less in the form of declarative sentences and more in the form of pointed questions. Mercola also comes across as more of a “regular guy” than a zealot. He can be more persuasive in that way, and this may have caused the arbiters of social media sites to avoid taking steps to ban him altogether from their platforms.
However, the large amount of publicity generated by the Center for Countering Digital Hate seems to have had an impact. Just recently, Dr. Mercola has announced a new policy: he will take down any new material after posting it for 48 hours. Mercola claims that he is being harassed by people and groups since he was ranked #1 on the Disinformation Dozen list. There are certainly reasons to be concerned that the issue of what material is available on social media sites is being determined by the proprietors of those sites. Furthermore, one desires freedom of speech whenever possible. But one could certainly argue that the false statements about the coronavirus, and about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, are the equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. On reading the articles that Mercola had posted on his site, people will be convinced to take actions that will endanger their own health and the health of others, and even their lives.
We were going to post the interviews of Mercola with Dr. Zelenko, Dr. Judy Mikovits and Dr. Peter McCullough; however, with Mercola’s new policy of removing all such material after 48 hours, these are no longer available on the site Mercola.com. Will they remain in circulation on private sites on platforms such as Facebook? Will they move to the Dark Web, where fewer people will see them but they will still live on? Or are they really gone? If they are really gone, this is a victory for reason and science. As you can see, these posts contained some serious misinformation that could lead to significant suffering and death from people who took these statements as fact.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of Robert F. Kennedy and the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, is an American lawyer. He received his J.D. degree from the University of Virginia and a Master of Laws degree from Pace University. In 1987 Kennedy founded the Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace University. He was that clinic’s supervising attorney and co-Director of that clinic for 30 years. By all accounts he was quite successful in this field, as he prosecuted a number of major firms for environmental damage. So his more recent conversion to becoming one of the major sources of lies and misinformation regarding vaccines and public health is somewhat of a mystery.
Figure 9: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, head of the Children’s Health Defense, an organization that spreads anti-vaccination misinformation.
Kennedy has a “conversion story” regarding his switch to anti-vaxxer advocate. In 2005 a psychologist named Sarah Bridges brought a stack of materials to Mr. Kennedy. Ms. Bridges had become convinced that her son’s autism was caused by vaccines, and in particular that her son had become autistic because of a mercury compound, thimoseral, that had appeared in several vaccines in order to prevent multi-use vaccines from developing bacterial growth. [Note: medical blogger Dr. David Gorski asserts that thimoseral was never an ingredient in the most popular child vaccine, the measles-mumps-rubella or MMR vaccine.]
In any case, Ms. Bridges managed to convince Kennedy that vaccines could be dangerous. He began to turn his attention to issues involving vaccines, their safety and public health. This has taken Kennedy down a long, dark road. His statements regarding the safety of vaccines have become progressively more dire, and in the process more and more detached from reality. Kennedy’s first big foray into the field of anti-vaccination propaganda took place in the summer of 2005. Kennedy published a piece called Deadly Immunity; it was jointly published in Salon and in Rolling Stone. As evidence of his claims, Kennedy referred to the transcript from a meeting attended by experts in vaccination and public health. We reviewed Deadly Immunity in an earlier blog post on vaccination.
First, Kennedy asserted that the meeting was top-secret, and that the proceedings were never to be made public. He was totally wrong: there was a temporary embargo of four weeks before all of the proceedings were published. Next, Kennedy released several statements from the transcript that he implied proved that the attendees at this meeting knew of great dangers from vaccines and were discussing how to cover them up. Actually, the attendees were speaking openly about the situation with vaccines, and there were no admissions of “deadly problems” with the vaccines. Kennedy’s “Deadly Immunity” paper was so full of egregious errors and outright lies that Salon later retracted it.
Rather than admit his errors and move to another topic, Kennedy has doubled down on vaccine misinformation. In the process, he has become arguably the leading public anti-vaxxer figure. His organization Children’s Health Defense is a large anti-vaccination group that has funded several ventures. As an example of his conspiracy-theory style, Kennedy has written that Bill Gates has underwritten the “forced vaccination” of millions of African children. This refers to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s underwriting of mass vaccination campaigns in Africa, a move that will save countless lives of African children.
In 2013, Kennedy published the book Thimoseral: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury – a Known Neurotoxin – from Vaccines. The book’s title is an example of Kennedy’s campaign of misinformation. Methyl mercury is indeed a neurotoxin; however, thimoseral is ethylmercury, which is not a known neurotoxin. In April 2015, Kennedy appeared as part of a Speakers Forum in connection with the release of a film Trace Amounts. That film claimed there was a link between autism and mercury in vaccinations.
Kennedy has also been involved with anti-vaccination efforts in Samoa. His anti-vaccine advocacy there has been linked with vaccine hesitancy that gave rise to a measles epidemic in Samoa in 2019 that killed 70 people, and also with a measles outbreak in Tonga in the same year. Kennedy was executive producer of the 2019 film Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth. This was the sequel to an anti-vaccine film made by notorious anti-vaxxers Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
In March 2021, Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense organization released a film Medical Racism: The New Apartheid. It is an anti-vaccine propaganda film aimed at the African-American community. It seeks to reinforce vaccine hesitancy among black Americans, by linking COVID-19 vaccines with earlier racist medical activities such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. Since African-Americans have already suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic, this video will definitely endanger lives, as it will cause African-Americans to avoid taking the vaccine, the safest way to protect themselves against the coronavirus. The Medical Racism video was co-produced by Centner Productions. Its founder, David Centner, is the co-founder of the private elementary school Centner Academy. It became infamous this past April when it required teachers who had received the COVID vaccination before April 21 to physically distance themselves from students, and teachers who received the vaccination after that date were prevented from interacting with students.
Figure 10: An advertisement for the film Medical Racism: the New Apartheid, a 2021 film produced by Robert Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense group.
Robert Kennedy Jr. seems to be genuinely concerned about vaccine safety; however, he appears willing to make claims about vaccines that are demonstrably false. He also always highlights the rare cases of infections and deaths that result from (e.g., polio) vaccines, without providing the context of the much, much greater number of infections and deaths prevented by administration of the vaccines. Furthermore, his anti-vaccine rhetoric seems to be escalating. He recently claimed that noted vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit should be “jailed and the key thrown away” because of Offit’s role in developing and testing vaccines. Kennedy wrote the foreword for the 2020 book Plague of Corruption by Dr. Judy Mikovits. We pointed out the serious flaws in Mikovits’ work in an earlier blog post. Recently, Kennedy has endorsed unsubstantiated claims that 5G technology poses risks to human health, and he has repeated conspiracy theories about that technology and alleged links between 5G and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robert Kennedy has been strongly criticized for spreading falsehoods and misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecticut Attorney General Henry Tsong characterizes Kennedy’s anti-vaxxer material: “They’re putting people at risk. And they are getting people killed. This isn’t some fanciful public policy academic debate that happens in some safe space at a university. This is real life. Life or death. People indulging their conspiracy theories, people indulging ideas that are not based in science, people with alternative warped political agenda, to prevent people from getting vaccines is causing people to get sick and to die.” Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an associate professor of medicine and public health at the Yale School of Medicine says, “That’s what makes me the angriest about these disinformation campaigns, that often they are coming from people with no scientific knowledge, no credibility. There’s no evidence for anything.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. has even been criticized publicly by members of his own family. In 2019, his siblings Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Joseph P. Kennedy II and his niece Maeve Kennedy McKean published an open letter that stated “We are proud of the history of our family as advocates of public health and promoters of immunization campaigns to bring life-saving vaccines to the poorest and most remote corners of America and the world, where children are the least likely to receive their full course of vaccinations … On this issue, Bobby is an outlier in the Kennedy family.” In December 2020, his niece Kerry Kennedy Meltzer, an internal medicine resident at Weill Cornell Medical Center published an op-ed in the New York Times that stated “As a doctor, and as a member of the Kennedy family, I feel I must use whatever small platform I have to state a few things unequivocally. I love my uncle Bobby. I admire him for many reasons, chief among them his decades-long fight for a cleaner environment. But when it comes to vaccines, he is wrong.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. is on a quest to prevent people from getting vaccinated. If he is successful he could dramatically increase the number of Americans who are unvaccinated, not only from COVID-19 but also from childhood vaccines such as measles, mumps and chickenpox. Contrary to the claims of some anti-vaxxers, diseases such as measles can be quite dangerous. The chance of getting seriously ill or dying from the measles is about 1 in 1,000; whereas, from the best available statistics, the odds of dying from a measles shot range from about one in a million to one in ten million.
Kennedy: The Aftermath
In early 2021, Robert F. Kennedy’s material and those of the Children’s Health Defense organization were partly removed from Instagram. However, Kennedy continues to post on Facebook and Twitter.
Sherri Tenpenny is an American osteopathic physician. She received her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from Missouri’s Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1984. She opened an osteopathic practice in Findlay, Ohio in 1994. She is an anti-vaccination activist, and has written four books on vaccines and health; one of these is titled Saying No To Vaccines.
Figure 11: Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an American osteopathic physician and anti-vaccination advocate.
Dr. Tenpenny claims to be an expert on vaccines; however, she parrots a number of the anti-vaxxer talking points. Let us review the conclusions from our blog report on Vaccination. Vaccines are one of the most effective health procedures ever devised. They have saved more than a billion people from disease and death. There are some immune-compromised people for whom vaccines are contra-indicated, but otherwise with few exceptions, side effects of vaccines are rare and not very serious. Deaths from vaccines appear to be in the range of 1 for every million to 10 million people.
Dr. Tenpenny maintains that vaccines are associated with causing autism. This is one of the best-studied health issues of the past century. As we have pointed out, there is absolutely no link between childhood vaccines and autism. In addition, vaccines have completely eliminated some of the world’s most deadly diseases. Smallpox has been eliminated worldwide. Polio has been eliminated except in a few pockets around the world. Measles is no longer endemic to the U.S.; recent measles epidemics have been triggered by carriers from other countries. On a cost-benefit basis, there is no doubt that vaccines are an incredibly powerful and effective public health measure.
In April 2021 Dr. Tenpenny uploaded a video to BitChute claiming that vaccines for COVID-19 had been released without being tested. She also claimed that the COVID vaccines would produce long-term negative health effects. The COVID-19 vaccines went through rigorous testing procedures before being given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are several short-term effects of the vaccines such as swelling or local redness from the shots. People with strong food allergies have occasionally had reactions like anaphylactic shock; these generally occur within an hour of the shot. There have also been a few cases of serious blood clots (thrombosis with thrombocytopenia) in young women who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But after a pause in J&J vaccines while evaluating these cases, the CDC recommended resuming use of the J&J vaccines.
At a hearing of the state of Ohio House Health Committee, Dr. Tenpenny testified and immediately became infamous. She claimed (falsely) that the COVID-19 vaccines “had a metal attached to them.” She then asserted that people who received the COVID vaccines were finding that they had become magnetized. “They can attach spoons and forks to their bodies and they don’t fall off.” Tenpenny further asserted that “people are saying” that there was a connection between 5G electromagnetic technology and the COVID vaccines. Here are Jake Tapper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN discussing the merits of Tenpenny’s claims:
The Ohio hearing was further highlighted when a nurse spoke up to claim that she had been vaccinated and was magnetized. To demonstrate, she stuck a metal key to her cheek; after about 2 seconds, the key fell off. “It also works with bobby pins,” she asserted. She pressed a bobby pin to her cheek, and it too fell right off.
Tenpenny has also claimed that masks are not only ineffective but actually dangerous. On Dec. 23, 2020 she Tweeted: “The #MaskAgenda has nothing to do with your health and everything to do with control & suppressing your #immunesystem. The longer you wear one, the more unhealthy you become.” Tenpenny also repeated false claims that electromagnetic waves in 5G technology are both harmful to your health, and that 5G technology is somehow connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result of her posts and the spread of her ideas through social media, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny was rated #4 on the Disinformation Dozen by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, in their March 2021 report.
Aside: Loony Assertions about Electromagnetic Fields and Health
One of the persistent claims in wellness fads is that electromagnetic fields (EMF) are harmful to humans, and that great care must be taken to shield oneself from these potentially deadly EMF. This claim has been increased greatly with the introduction of 5G cellular technology. Not only are EMF from 5G claimed to be extremely harmful, it is even asserted (without a grain of actual evidence) that there is a connection between 5G cellular towers and the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to several conspiracy theories purporting to “link” 5G technology and the pandemic. Figure 12 shows the electromagnetic spectrum; the EM rays associated with 5G fall into the higher end of the microwave spectrum. Note that the average frequency of visible light EM rays is about 5,000 times greater than the average 5G frequency.
Figure 12: The electromagnetic spectrum, showing various EM rays and their frequency. Note that the regime of 5G rays is in the microwave region; further note that the frequencies associated with visible light have about 5,000 times the frequencies associated with 5G.
A number of products are being marketed to shield the user from these supposedly deadly electromagnetic fields (EMF). A search through the Web led us to some of these products. One example is “EMF shield” products from Qi Technology; these are products touted to shield the user from EMF rays. You can buy shields that fit in your pocket, stand up in a room, or are even claimed to protect entire buildings from EMF.
The Qi products are not cheap: a home Qi EMF shield, shown in Fig. 13, will cost you roughly $3,800. The product advertises that it blocks “100% of Wi-Fi and 4G radiation” and “75% of 5G” radiation, but at the same time it does not interfere with Wi-Fi reception. But the Qi Website notes, “You will see no effect if you measure EMFs around the Qi device using an ‘amateur EMF meter.’” OK, a product that blocks the user from 100% of Wi-Fi and 4G radiation, but does not interfere with your Wi-Fi reception, and in addition can’t be measured with an EMF meter. This is some trick! My advice: don’t purchase the Qi home device. Your health will be exactly what it was before, and you will experience increased peace of mind knowing you have saved yourself $3,800!
Figure 13: The home EMF shield manufactured by Qi Technology. The device is advertised to shield your home from “100% of Wi-Fi and 4G radiation, and 75% of 5G radiation.” But it is claimed to have no effect on your own Wi-Fi network, and the Qi electric fields cannot be detected with an ‘amateur EMF meter.’
Another product is clothing manufactured by Lambs Co. It purports to block EMF signals, because the clothing is made with a “proprietary mesh of Xsoft silver.” The silver “creates a Faraday cage” that blocks electromagnetic fields and shields the wearer. The only problem is that a Faraday cage is a precisely-engineered shell that is completely closed. The Faraday cage will indeed block any EM fields from penetrating inside. However, shirts or underwear do not form a closed system, and certainly socks do not. By the way, it is straightforward to test if you have a Faraday cage by measuring the EM fields inside. Before shelling out any $$ for “Faraday shielding clothing,” we suggest that you have someone perform the measurements. Just place a source of electromagnetic fields outside the clothing, and a meter to measure the fields inside. If the Lambs Co. people are correct, you should see zero fields inside. Want to bet on the outcome?
Figure 14: A short-sleeved shirt manufactured by Lambs Co. The company claims that their clothing contains a “proprietary mesh of Xsoft silver,” which creates a “Faraday cage” that blocks EMFs inside the clothing.
In any case, even if these shielding devices worked, there is no need for them, because you are not in danger from electromagnetic radiation, even 5G radiation. The claim that devices producing EM radiation in the microwave regime are dangerous is mainly due to a report issued in 2000 by Bill Curry, a physicist and consultant who issued a report about the use of laptops and wireless networks in schools. Curry claimed that wi-fi and laptop technologies were “likely to be a serious health hazard.” He based this on his calculations showing the absorption of microwaves in brain tissue vs. the frequency of the microwaves. This is shown in Figure 15.
Figure 15: Bill Curry’s plot of the absorption of microwaves in brain tissue, vs. the frequency of the microwaves. The frequencies of EM radiation used in computer networking range from 1 to 10 GigaHertz (GHz) (or 1000 to 10,000 MegaHertz (MHz)).
Curry maintained that the tremendous increase in absorption at these frequencies meant that students in such an environment might absorb dangerous amounts of energy in their brain tissues. But Curry was looking at the absorption of EM radiation by tissues isolated in a laboratory. He failed to take into account that, for EM radiation in this range, the higher the frequency, the more they are absorbed on the surface of the skin. Thus, these rays do not penetrate into the body; they are absorbed by your clothing and by your skin. Another way to see this is to compare the frequencies for 5G technology with sunlight. The frequencies associated with sunlight are roughly 5,000 times greater than 5G frequencies. If you look at Figure 15, from Curry’s calculations the absorption of sunlight in the brain would be catastrophically large – we would all be dead from cancer caused by the Sun. But this is false, because sunlight does not penetrate below the skin, although it is possible to develop skin cancer from excessive exposure to sunlight (this is caused by the part of sunlight that falls in the ultraviolet range).
Curry’s graph, and dire warnings about the health dangers of EM radiation, have been repeated by activist groups for decades now. Curry and like-minded critics predicted that the use of cellphones would lead to a catastrophic rise in brain cancer, particularly since cellphones are held next to the head. We have not seen a spectacular rise in such cancers, even though the number of cellphones is now in the billions. The statement that “increased frequencies are more dangerous to health” is an explicit assumption made by groups opposed to 5G technology. Figure 12 shows the electromagnetic spectrum, including the region occupied by 5G. Once you get to very high frequencies, such as the “ionizing radiation” regime of X-rays and gamma rays, radiation damage does increase with frequency. But in the “non-ionizing” region of the spectrum, radiation damage inside the human body actually decreases with increasing frequency, because higher-frequency waves do not penetrate the clothing or skin.
Sherri Tenpenny: The Aftermath
In July 2021, Twitter permanently suspended Dr. Tenpenny’s account for violating its rules. Her account on Facebook had been partially removed prior to the March 2021 printing of the CCDH report. I have not been able to find any restrictions on her Instagram account. Dr. Tenpenny was certainly posting misinformation about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic. Her assertion that masks are bad for your health, and that the longer you wear a mask the sicker you become, is certainly false. Her claims about the links between vaccines and autism have been conclusively disproven. And her claim that the COVID vaccines have killed more children than they have saved is both false and dangerous.
Ronnie Steven “Rizza” Islam was born in Compton, California, in March 1990. Like his stepfather Alfreddie Johnson before him, he has been a member of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. Also like his stepfather, he was associated with the Church of Scientology. Alfreddie Johnson was the founder of the World Literacy Crusade (WLC), and Rizza’s mother Hanan Islam was the executive director of the WLC, an organization that received financial support from the Church of Scientology. In 2015, Rizza Islam, his mother and some of his siblings, were charged with medical insurance fraud in connection with the Narconon rehabilitation center of the WLC.
Figure 16: Rizza Islam, member of the Nation of Islam and a leading anti-vaccination advocate.
Mr. Islam was groomed for leadership in the Nation of Islam (NOI) and met with NOI leader Farrakhan on several occasions. Mr. Islam has been active in the anti-vaccination movement for some time, and in 2015 he introduced Louis Farrakhan to another prominent anti-vaxxer, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
As a rising young star in the Nation of Islam, Rizza Islam follows the teachings of its leader, Louis Farrakhan. A notable positive aspect of the NOI program is its focus on personal responsibility and dedication. A more negative aspect of the Nation of Islam is its often virulent anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that Mr. Islam has made several statements that vilify both Jews and members of the LGBTQ community. These include allegations that:
- Jewish people today are not “true” Jews
- Jewish people control the media and Hollywood, and use that control to censor Black people
- Jewish people disproportionately owned slaves or controlled the slave trade
- Jewish people and members of the LGBTQ+ community are pedophiles or promote pedophilia
- The LGBTQ+ so-called “agenda” is part of a calculated effort to feminize Black men and bring on the extinction of Black people
Rizza Islam’s social media sites also make strong arguments against vaccination. He focuses specifically on the effects of vaccines on the black community. He argues that vaccination for blacks is a continuation of efforts to eliminate African-Americans. Islam equates efforts to vaccinate blacks with racist medical practices such as the Tuskegee syphilis study. In that shameful episode in American history, a group of illiterate black men who had syphilis were studied by doctors with the Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control for a period of 40 years. They were never told that they had syphilis, and they were lied to regarding the “free medical treatment” they were receiving. They were even prevented from getting penicillin, after that drug was found to be an effective treatment for the disease.
A second episode cited by Mr. Islam is the American eugenics movement. This was a pseudo-scientific theory that argued for improvement of the human race by selective breeding. Theories underpinning the eugenics movement were undergirded by “race theory,” which ranked the various races according to their “worth” and their eugenic fitness. On this scale, Negroes and Native Americans generally occupied the lowest rungs. The eugenics movement led to efforts to limit reproduction by “inferior types” and to encourage mating of the “fittest.” For example, at the beginning of her career birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger was motivated by eugenic arguments. So, Islam argues that birth control, vaccines and the entire American medical establishment is pursuing genocidal policies against African-Americans.
Rizza Islam claims that the COVID vaccines are harmful, but that they are particularly harmful to African-American women. He has tweeted the false claim that “A whistleblower at GlaxoSmithKline just tested their new COVID vaccine on 63 women and made 61 of them infertile!” Mr. Islam further claims that African-Americans are subject to more harm from the vaccines than whites. As an example, Islam repeats the false claim that vaccines cause autism, but he then doubles down to further assert that the vaccine-autism link is stronger in blacks than whites. Mr. Islam has also claimed that vaccines are Satanic in origin, and he asks “Why do you trust taking a shot from the people who enslaved you?” Finally, Mr. Islam has posted cartoons claiming that Bill Gates was involved in starting the coronavirus pandemic in order to profit from sales of the vaccines (see Fig. 8, which was posted by Mr. Islam).
So, Rizza Islam’s social media posts urge people not to get the COVID vaccine, for a variety of specious reasons (vaccines cause autism, they make women infertile, they are Satanic in origin, or they are a plot by Bill Gates). But he is specifically targeting black audiences by his assertions that the vaccines are particularly harmful to blacks and are a part of genocidal acts on the part of white racists. The unintended consequence of his actions is to make black communities more susceptible to serious disease and death from COVID.
Rizza Islam: The Aftermath
Rizza Islam’s main Facebook page had been removed in February 2021; his Instagram account was also removed in March 2021. However, Islam continues to post on Twitter; he also has backup sites on both Facebook and Instagram, and he continues to post to those sites. As an example, on April 20, 2021, Mr. Islam posted on Twitter that “Herpes infections may be a side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.” A post making this claim is shown in Fig. 17. This is yet another example of the astonishing dishonesty of the anti-vaxxers. This claim refers to a paper in Rheumatology that mentioned the cases of six women who developed herpes zoster infections shortly after receiving the Pfizer mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. However, this “herpes” is not the oral or genital herpes that is a sexually-transmitted disease.
Figure 17: A poster claiming that the COVID-19 vaccine may cause herpes infections.
The herpes infection being discussed here is herpes varicella zoster, or shingles. Anyone who has had chickenpox has residual varicella zoster lying dormant in their bodies. An attack of shingles can be brought on by either physical or emotional stress. People with immune-suppressed systems can also develop an attack of shingles. The good news is that there are now vaccines that can prevent chickenpox in children. For people who have already had chickenpox, there are also vaccines that prevent shingles. The six women in this study were all taking immunosuppressant medications due to chronic autoimmune diseases. They had never been vaccinated for either chickenpox or shingles. Perhaps as a result of stress associated with the COVID-19 vaccination, they experienced an outbreak of shingles.
But the anti-vaxxers spread this news around, confusing people into believing that there is a link between the COVID-19 vaccines and the herpes simplex viruses associated with oral or genital herpes. Yet another shameful example of anti-vaxxer fear-mongering.
The March 2021 report of the Center for Countering Digital Hate publicized the surprising result that up to 65% of social media misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy and safety of the COVID vaccines could be traced to just twelve social media influencers, who were named the “Disinformation Dozen” by the joint report from CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch. In addition to tracking the spread of these sites and the types of false claims made by these individuals, the CCDH report also provided detailed examples where the Disinformation Dozen had violated the terms of the most important social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Following the release of the CCDH report, a U.S. House Committee hearing in March 2021 reviewed the issue of the spread of misinformation on social media sites. A U.S. Senate hearing in April 2021 also discussed this topic. Representatives from the major social media sites claimed that they were actively policing their sites to prevent the dissemination of false information. However, the CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch groups subsequently reviewed whether the social media sites of the “Disinformation Dozen” individuals had been suspended or removed. They found that as of April 25, 2021, ten of the twelve Disinformation Dozen accounts were still active on Facebook and Twitter, and nine of the twelve were still active on Instagram.
Research by CCDH further showed that these social media platforms fail to act on 99 percent of the COVID and vaccine misinformation posted on their sites. Despite the fact that the CCDH report pointed out specific violations of policy for all of these twelve individuals, and a bipartisan group of U.S. House and Senate members had echoed the calls for these sites to enforce their own policies on misinformation, the major platforms had not taken action against the vast majority of the Disinformation Dozen. Note that the CCDH study did not investigate the use of private Facebook accounts and hidden Facebook messages, two tactics that are often used by misinformation purveyors as a means of avoiding public scrutiny.
It seems clear that the current situation – where the proprietors of social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the sole agents to police their sites and enforce their own rules – is not working. It is uncertain what steps can be taken to ameliorate this, as the CCDH reports constituted an effort to apply public pressure on these sites to take down messages that violate their own terms of service.
The rapid spread of the Delta variant, and the alarming increases in hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated, may be changing the behavior of some Red states that have strongly resisted enforcing either mask mandates or social-distancing. Vaccination rates are increasing, as some Americans who had avoided vaccination are now getting their shots. When infection rates of COVID were decreasing due to the vaccines, vaccine resisters appeared to have the upper hand in some states with active denial of the threat from the pandemic. Conditions are still very fluid, but the tide may now be turning. Some state governors that had resisted taking any strong measures to get their citizens vaccinated are now changing their tune. At the moment, governors Abbott of Texas, de Santis of Florida and Noem of South Dakota are still adamantly resisting any measures other than voluntary ones. But there is considerable anger from those who are vaccinated and have been masking and social-distancing. It seems clear that the current spread of the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is primarily due to low vaccination rates among adults who have bought into disinformation and baseless suspicions promulgated by a small number of influencers, but then greatly amplified by social and right-wing media.
We will see whether the work of the Center for Countering Digital Hate will convince the major social media sites that the misinformation spread by the “Disinformation Dozen” is responsible for considerable loss of life from the pandemic. The COVID-19 vaccines are our best hope to stopping this pandemic so that we can get on with our lives. Once the pandemic is stopped, businesses and society can return more or less to normal. How can this be achieved? For a start, various professions can require that their employees be vaccinated. This is certainly true for front-line health workers, and it should also be true for staff in retirement homes.
Universities, where large numbers of students often live together in fraternities and sororities, should mandate that all their students be vaccinated. Exceptions should be made only for those whose immune-compromised systems make vaccination inadvisable. Masks should be mandated for all elementary-school students taking part in in-person learning. We should adopt a principle where we regulate behavior only when there is overwhelming evidence that society benefits. Thus, Indiana prohibits smoking in places of eating; it forbids people to drive when drunk; it requires automobile drivers to use seatbelts; and it forbids people from being nude in public.
Requiring vaccination is analogous to forbidding drunk driving; the advantages of vaccination are glaringly obvious. We have completely eliminated the deadly disease of smallpox; and polio now exists only in a few countries with either remote populations or civil unrest. Measles is now not endemic in the U.S.; epidemics of measles in this country now occur only when measles is imported from other countries. So far this year the U.S. has seen only 52 cases of mumps. Chickenpox (varicella) is more common; however, with the new two-dose vaccines, varicella outbreaks have become significantly less common and (among the vaccinated) less severe. The vast majority of varicella outbreaks are now seen among the non-vaccinated.
We would urge states to require vaccinations for school children, as a condition of attending school. All schools that receive state funds for education should have a vaccine mandate. Students with proven health issues would be exempt from such a requirement. Measles is so contagious that at least 95% of the population needs to be vaccinated, to avoid epidemics if measles is introduced into the population. Vaccines have been phenomenally successful in eliminating some of the deadliest diseases that strike children. We need to enact strong public-health mandates in order to save our children from these epidemics.
We will finish with some comments from David Frum, who makes it clear that a major source of the misinformation and resistance to vaccines is politically motivated by pro-Trump interests. In a July 2021 article in The Atlantic, Frum points out that “Experts list many reasons for the vaccine slump, but one big reason stands out: vaccine resistance among conservative, evangelical, and rural Americans. Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty … 88 percent of Democrats, but only 54 percent of Republicans, want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. All told, Trump support predicts a state’s vaccine refusal better than average income or education level … [and] pro-Trump state legislatures are enacting ever more ambitious protections for people who refuse vaccines. They are forbidding business owners to ask for proof of vaccination from their customers. They are requiring cruise lines, sports stadiums, and bars to serve the unvaccinated. In Montana, they have even forbidden hospitals to require health-care workers to get vaccinated. … In the end, the unvaccinated person himself or herself has decided to inflict a preventable and unjustifiable harm upon family, friends, neighbors, community, country, and planet.”
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