For months now, I have been asking the same two questions. How can so many people be opposed to a vaccine that could save their lives and those of their loved ones? And how dare they justify increasing the risk of infecting someone else? Frustrated to the point of fury, I take my turn playing conspiracy theorist. Until now, I have screened out the anti-vaxx, anti-mask people as having a single common denominator: interests and beliefs of the sort Donald Trump catered to. But stuff keeps wiggling through the mesh, comments dropped by people I love dearly and know do not belong in that crowd. Who is pulling their puppet strings?
Oil of oregano, for example. When the third person mentions oil of oregano, I hear a little safecracker’s click in the back of my brain. Other themes recur, too: The notion that people who are vaccinated can shed bits of the virus. (The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not even use live virus.) The notion that cases and deaths are vastly overreported because hospitals are profiting from government bonuses for COVID patients. (Hospitals are reimbursed at a higher level, but they are also delaying elective surgeries, controlling contagion, turning over their ICUs to COVID patients, and risking their employees’ lives daily. You would rather they go broke?) The notion, which is starting to feel a little Darwinian, that anyone who takes good care of their immune system will be fine, so we are all on our own with that. My immune system is shot to hell by the stress of railing against such assertions. Time to stop arguing and begin analyzing.
Once I set aside overt political agendas and historic reasons (Black people’s past exploitation by the medical system; religious objections to the aborted fetal cells that were collected generations ago and used to grow cell lines in vaccine labs), I find myself afloat in a new place. A place I never expected to sabotage a public health crisis. The “wellness” community.
Here I bob along, sometimes following ideology, more often just following the money. By soothing fears about COVID, alternative health practitioners are selling more vitamins, minerals, tonics, consults, and books; gathering speaker’s fees, doing interviews, raising their presence, and amassing more followers. They have a built-in audience: skeptical about Western medicine, corporate health care, and Big Pharma; eager for natural anything. So when a few influential (and, in my opinion, either deluded or malevolent) practitioners warn of heavy metals and compare a molecule that prompts the body to make a protein with an AI chip that takes over the brain, their followers listen.
“A large and growing segment of the natural wellness space is occupied by COVID misinformation,” confirms Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public. “Some of it is people trying to earn money selling supplements: ‘You don’t need a vaccine; you can treat COVID with these supplements or this detox, which I happen to sell.’”
Ty Bollinger, a former bodybuilder, became an alternative medicine activist to spread what he considers “the truth about cancer”: that chemotherapy does not cure you and what you need are the products he and his wife sell. “Have you had enough of the fake pandemic yet?” they tweet. They have supported osteopath Rashid Buttar, selling subscriptions to his International Association for a Disease Free World. Buttar considers COVID a bioweapon with links to 5G and says the vaccine could cause infertility and flu shots could cause COVID. His YouTube channel has more than half a million followers. Before the pandemic, he, too, sold audio seminars and DVDs offering natural remedies for cancer, heart disease, autism, and stroke. On his site, you can pay $99 to “exit the public domain” and hear some of the “things that you cannot say if you are in the health world today.” You can also buy “The Drops of Life,” alleged to be a revolutionary anti-aging product.
The Bollingers and Buttar are on the “Disinformation Dozen” list compiled by The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a not-for-profit NGO with offices in London and D.C. According to CCDH research, these dozen people generate almost two-thirds of all anti-COVID-19 vaccine social media shares. Among them are three osteopaths, a chiropractor, a physician who let her medical license expire, and a holistic psychiatrist. For anyone who does not check credentials carefully, they are educated medical professionals. And in the larger debate, “there’s a little bit of contradiction or hypocrisy,” Moran says. “People will say they distrust science or medicine until a doctor agrees with them, and then that person is the most credible source of all.”
The physician in the dozen, Dr. Christiane Northrup, has an interesting backstory that does touch on politics. A holistic obstetrician and gynecologist who left clinical practice to write bestselling wellness books, she was one of Oprah’s favorites, a popular advocate for women’s health. But in recent years, Northrup’s politics, as measured by her donations, have done a 180, shifting toward Trump, QAnon, and medical conspiracy. She has tweeted that asymptomatic carriers of COVID do not spread the disease; that masks harm the wearer’s health; that the 2020 election was stolen; and that global public health leaders created the pandemic as a form of genocide, hoping to cull the population, then track and control whoever remains.
Northrup says the COVID vaccines carry AI and will alter human DNA, compromising our capacity for empathy. I have had two Moderna injections, and my empathy only weakens when I read assertions like that one. The mRNA vaccines, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, simply introduce a messenger RNA molecule that causes the body to produce a protein that resembles one of the proteins in SARS-CoV-2, prompting an immune response. The vaccines never enter the nucleus of a cell.
She also says that toxic metals used in the vaccines will create antennas in the human body that will then be detected by 5G technology, and that nanoparticles acting as antennae will collect biometric information that will then be traded for cryptocurrency. This idea probably comes from a patent application made by Microsoft and Bill Gates that would use technology to track people’s physical activity, like a sophisticated FitBit. Northrup suggests that the vaccines will introduce non-human DNA into the body and turn us into chimeras, causing us to exhibit traits of other animals. (Which would be cool, but, no.)
Northrup might well believe what she espouses; she claims a past life in Atlantis and has used Tarot cards to diagnose herself. Another seemingly sincere amplifier is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has opposed vaccines since the early (and now thoroughly debunked) suspicions that vaccines cause autistic disorders. He slid right into opposition of the COVID vaccines. In May 2019, three of the Kennedys coauthored an op-ed headlined “RFK Jr. Is Our Brother and Uncle. He’s Tragically Wrong About Vaccines.”
RFK Jr. has produced a documentary called Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, aimed at Black and Latinx Americans. It includes claims that childhood vaccines are genetically modified to harm children of color. Activist Kevin Jenkins joins Kennedy at public events, calling vaccines a “conspiracy” to “wipe out” Black people. Jenkins co-founded the Freedom Airway & Freedom Travel Alliance, a company founded in late 2020 to help its members travel around the world without masking, quarantining, or taking other public health measures. Lovely for the rest of us.
Is all of this just a spontaneous uprising of rebellion against the mainstream? “The typical way anti-vaxxers are portrayed is that they are a disorganized thing, but it’s actually an organized industry of highly capable propagandists,” says the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s executive director, Imran Ahmed.
On a QAnon FAQ podcast (since renamed the Sean Morgan Report) on May 20, Northrup said she was working with Sherri Tenpenny and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and that they formed “a big umbrella.” In October 2020, a three-day online conference was organized by the National Vaccine Information Center (an anti-vaccine organization originally named Dissatisfied Parents Together). Participants included Tenpenny, Kennedy, and other leading anti-vaxx advocates. Afterward, CCDH reported their three-point strategic plan: Tell people COVID is not dangerous; insist that the vaccines are dangerous; persuade people that public health experts who advocate the vaccine cannot be trusted.
Tenpenny, an osteopath, urges people to do what we all want to do: rip off their masks (which she says suppress the immune system) and hug each other. She has posted: “Stop getting tested. If you are getting tested you are part of the problem.” She calls the COVID vaccine a “genocidal, DNA-manipulating, infertility-causing, dementia-causing machine.” She insists that the idea (actually, fact) that people who are asymptomatic can be carriers of the virus is a con that “the most evil genius ever devised to create a mass of subservient unthinking obedient slaves that are willing to give up being human just to stay ‘safe.’”
Another osteopath in the dozen, Dr. Joseph Mercola, spoke at the NVIC conference and has published more than 600 anti-vaccine articles on Facebook. He claims that the shots “alter your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch.” He also suggests that “hydrogen peroxide treatment can successfully treat most viral respiratory illnesses, including coronavirus.” His partner, Erin Elizabeth, publishes Health Nut News. She posted a claim on Instagram that vaccines are part of a plan to create “a chronically-ill population” and believes “the Global elite” (she tags Jewish philanthropists and business leaders) “are running the show.”
Then there is Rizza Islam, who has posted that “Satan” is behind the COVID vaccines, promoted the falsehood that COVID vaccines make women infertile, and tweeted that he recovered from COVID in 48 hours by following a special diet.
Sayer Ji, also on the list, runs a popular alternative health website, GreenMedInfo.com. One of his posts claimed that the Pfizer vaccine has killed more people than COVID. He has also linked the COVID vaccines to the Holocaust, illustrating one post with a yellow star that says “No Vax.” His partner, Kelly Brogan, practices holistic psychiatry but does not appear to be board certified. She urges people not to wear masks, and in an influential video, suggested that “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus,” because “it’s not possible to prove that any given pathogen has induced death.” Which sounds soothing until you wonder what did kill more than four and a half million people.
Not on the CCDH list are two of the most influential alt-medicine disinformers. Rather than ongoing social media shares, one gave a six-minute talk and the other made a persuasive and utterly inaccurate video.
First prize goes to Dr. Daniel Stock, whose concierge practice in Noblesville, Indiana, is called PureHealth Function Family Medicine (though he is not board-certified in family medicine). His six-minute talk to the Mount Vernon Community School board received more than three million views on YouTube and over 10,000 shares on Facebook almost instantly—and aroused deep suspicion when it was taken down. Masks do not work and neither do the COVID vaccines, announced Stock, who has urged use of ivermectin (yes, the livestock dewormer), zinc, and Vitamin D in lieu of the vaccine. “Everything being recommended by the CDC and the state board of health is actually contrary to all the rules of science,” he told the crowd.
Snopes factchecked his talk and concluded, “You would be hard pressed to find a single sentence in Dr. Stock’s speech on ‘the futility of mask mandates and COVID-19 protocols’ that is not misleading or explicitly false.” The most basic bit of disinformation—one that has haunted the internet for two years—is that masks are ineffective. You can find studies that show particles penetrating a mask, says Snopes, but “bits of SARS-CoV-2 viral material do not generally travel through the air unattached to anything. They are attached to larger bits of mucus that can hover in the air for a time and enter the body of another human being. While masks would not stop ‘naked’ SARS-CoV-2 particles, they can stop these more prevalent larger particles.”
The predecessor to Stock’s short videotaped talk was Mikki Willis’s infamous video, Plandemic, which was viewed eight million times in its first week before social media platforms yanked it. (One of the amplifiers for Plandemic was Christiane Northrup, who has half a million followers on Facebook alone). In the video, a former research scientist, Dr. Judy Mikovits, said closing crowded beaches was “insanity” because there are “healing microbes in the ocean in the saltwater.” Saltwater does have antibacterial (not antiviral) properties, and it can ease coughs and congestion, but breathing it does not wrap you in a cloak of protection against contagion.
Mikovits also said (inaccurately) that “if you’ve ever had a flu vaccine, you were injected with coronaviruses.” And she insisted that “wearing the mask literally activates your own virus. You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions.” What?
Buoyed by Plandemic’s success, Willis made a second video and is now doing podcast interviews, speaking at rallies, and publishing a book about his experiences. He even showed up at the Capitol on January 6, filming the people around him as an example of “democracy in action.”
Mikovits, the star of Willis’s video, is one of several alt-medicine influencers who have left medical jobs or had their research discredited. Her research into chronic fatigue syndrome was pulled from Science, a highly respected journal; her claims were discredited in a second study; and she was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease. The physician who pre-published the most influential study to date about ivermectin had it pulled because of ethical and factual concerns. Dr. Christiane Northrup left her medical practice in 1999 and let her medical license lapse in 2015.
Reading their posts, it strikes me all over again: You cannot win. Chiropractor Ben Tapper, another member of the CCDH dozen, says “there is a total lack of evidence that viruses can live outside the body. When the whole healing profession comprehends this simple fact, there will no longer be this fear of germs, nor the need for vaccines, disinfectants, or other harmful germicides.” Brogan, who graduated from Cornell Medical College, mocks the idea that there could be “little invisible pathogens, you know, that randomly jump around from person to person.” Ji writes, “They desperately want you to believe that an invisible viral particle (e.g. COVID-19) . . . can kill and victimize a person simply through exposure to it, even though the cell membranes of healthy tissue have been measured to have up to the tensile strength of steel.”
What do they think caused the great plagues of Athens, London, Italy, and Marseilles; the Black Death, cholera, the influenzas that have decimated populations since prehistory, smallpox, polio, and AIDS?
Also in the cannot-win category: Bill Gates said, “The $10 billion that we gave to help provide vaccines, drugs, bed nets and other supplies in developing countries created an estimated $200 billion in social and economic benefits.” That was twisted to suggest he had made $200 billion by distributing vaccines.
Efforts to quickly vaccinate people of color whose communities were being hit the hardest by COVID, and who were getting sicker and dying faster, have been interpreted as turning people of color, once again, into guinea pigs.
Anti-vaxxers used the occasional, inevitable death of a participant in a large-scale trial to claim that a vaccine is deadly—when the participant who died was in the placebo group.
Health authorities set up systems to record any adverse reactions, so they could assess safety as people became vaccinated. Anti-vaxxers represent this as evidence that serious adverse reactions would be common.
Alternative health entrepreneurs now have at least 22.6 million followers, supplying two-fifths of the anti-vaccine movement’s online following. Phrases associated with vaccine disinformation popped up in July at as much as five times the June rate, according to Zignal Labs’ tracking of social media, cable television, and print and online outlets. The comforting belief that people should rely on their “natural immunity” instead of getting vaccinated rose by 111 percent, and the assertion that vaccines do not work rose by 437 percent. This, despite a recent New York Times analysis of data from forty states and the District of Columbia that looked at COVID hospitalizations. The number of patients who had been fully vaccinated ranged between one-tenth of one percent and, at the highest, five percent of all COVID hospitalizations. Everybody else jammed into the ICUs is unvaccinated.
A full twenty percent of U.S. citizens currently believe that it is either definitely or probably true that the government is using the vaccines to microchip us. Why? Because so many earnest influencers say so, and because human villainy is easier to wrap your head around than a random virus with its own, alien mode of operation. Our feelings are so wildly terrified, their cause cannot be an innocuous, invisible molecule. It must be something wildly malevolent. Like Bill Gates.
I do not automatically trust mainstream media, federal agencies, drug manufacturers, hospital administrators, or scientific findings, either. But when all of that is sweepingly discredited at once, and people find a niche with no referees, no factual accountability, and a cluster of superstars who seem wholesome, natural, and interested only in healing and well-being . . . they will be powerfully persuasive.
And their followers will be sure that you are the one who has been duped.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.