Amongst the many failures during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most consequential has been the repurposing of medications. Repurposing the existing pharmacopeia failed to find an effective treatment for the virus and created a market for treatments based on weak or flat-out fraudulent evidence. What seemingly started as an honest gambit to use old drugs to treat the novel coronavirus has turned into an exposé of the unscrupulous. It revealed weaknesses in the scientific method, which relies on trust and honesty to function appropriately, that bad-faith actors worldwide exploited for personal and political gain.
Not to say that drug repurposing is all bad. Much good has come from studying off-patent medications to treat ailments that differ from their original purpose. Drug repurposing can even be time and cost-effective, but – like all of science – it does not always guarantee positive results. Even when some drugs show promise in the lab, more often than not, success in the real world is serendipitous. Success has little to do with effort and is sadly rare. Those who dedicate their lives to these efforts know this painful fact. No big pharma conspiracy is required for best intentions to come crashing against the walls of this reality.
To increase the odds of success, those attempting to repurpose old drugs generally use prior studies to identify promising candidates for repurposing. For COVID, one of the most notorious drugs was hydroxychloroquine, which demonstrated some effect on viral replication in the lab. How hydroxychloroquine went viral in the US, in part thanks to now-deceased upstate New York family physician Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, has been written about extensively in the popular press (Media Manipulation, Wired, Forward). While only used in small trials in China at the beginning of the pandemic, hydroxychloroquine would be popularized worldwide as a treatment for COVID in March 2020 by an eclectic group of individuals using social media, shoddy evidence, and questionable credentials.
In brief, two entrepreneurial individuals Gregory Rigano, a lawyer turned blockchain inventor, and Dr. James Todaro, a physician turned crypto investor and member of the secretive far-right Council for National Policy, cooked up a white paper regarding hydroxychloroquine on Google Docs. They then posted it on social media, which got picked up by several prominent individuals, including then President of the United States Donald Trump. Unfortunately, these savvy businesspeople were taken seriously by desperate politicians as the GOP geared up for Trump’s failed 2020 re-election campaign season amid the emerging deadly coronavirus pandemic. The result was the creation of a global campaign for miracle cures for COVID that would prove politically expedient, profitable, and entirely based on lies.
In the US, Todaro’s Council for National Policy would partner with the Tea Party Patriots to create the pro-Trump, pro-hydroxychloroquine physician group America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), fronted by physician-attorney and future insurrectionist CNP member Simone Gold and memorable for its member Nigerian-born Texas physician-pastor Stella “demon sperm” Immanuel. AFLDS went direct to consumers with a staged SCOTUS steps video released on social media by Donald Trump Jr. and far-right media by Breitbart. The overtly political hydroxychloroquine physician group was tied to the Israeli-based Teva pharmacy to source the snake oil they sold over telehealth. Their work was further supported by Dr. Harvey Risch of Yale University and his right-wing American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) which counts physician-turned-senator and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s bane Rand Paul (R-KY) as a star member. The AAPS would go on to support Gold through her insurrection arrest, sentencing, and imprisonment and lobby against medical board action for doctors like her who spread deadly COVID disinformation.
Although the thought that this was intentional or planned would seem conspiratorial, it is hard to ignore the timing of events and the political nature of this misinformation movement. If reporters are correct, French scientist Didier Raoult was contacted by Rigano and Todaro before he published his fraudulent paper used by right-wing politicians across the globe to support the use and study of hydroxychloroquine for COVID. It would be months before scientists gathered enough evidence, amidst bullying and intimidation from Raoult, to refute the claims that hydroxychloroquine was a miracle cure for novel coronavirus wreaking havoc worldwide. Tragically, people were already too committed to hydroxychloroquine by then to accept this harsh revelation. Raoult is now being investigated criminally for his fraudulent work which includes accusations of experimentation on the homeless in their non-native languages (ie. no consent) and a laboratory culture of bullying and intimidation. AFLDS and their members are currently embroiled in a number of lawsuits, including one against Gold for allegedly embezzling their funds and a hydroxychloroquine wrongful death case in Nevada.
Claiming ignorance may work temporarily and disingenuously for politicians and businesspeople, but for the medical professionals who joined the bandwagon doing so would be a flat-out lie. One such physician, Dr. Steven Hatfill of George Washington University coordinated directly with Peter Navarro to push hydroxychloroquine for COVID and specifically asked that his communication with the Trump White House be kept private, per the report “A ‘Knife Fight’ With the FDA: The Trump White House’s Relentless Attacks on FDA’s Coronavirus Response” from Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-SC) now-shuttered House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis (HSSCC). Whether the individuals who promoted hydroxychloroquine were victims of the sunk cost fallacy or a cynical commitment to political ideologies is irrelevant to the harm caused by their refusal to acknowledge that it did not work. Additionally, there’s reason to believe they knew their miracle COVID cure was not effective. In an email to Dr. Risch dated August 27, 2020 included in the aforementioned HSSCC report, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) admits that “Other than the President, [Mark] Meadows, and Navarro” the Trump Administration didn’t “want to touch HCQ with a 100′ pole” and highlights “the moral aspect – the lives lost” as well as what he obviously prioritized, “the political danger – loss of support of doctors like you”. In April 2020 Johnson had written to Trump to “urging action on hydroxychloroquine” so there was some ass saving to do for the senator from Wisconsin, as well.
That several individuals involved doubled down on their support of this disproven treatment, continued to work with AFLDS, or pivoted to other disproven medications such as ivermectin with its own international trail of unethical studies, fraud accusations, and associations with bad government and religion, is telling. CC’d on Johnson’s email to Risch is Dr. Peter McCullough, a member of both the UK-based, Banon-tied anti-public health group Pandata and the US-based anti-vax group The Unity Project, who is on the ivermectin studies out of Australia tied to the Ziverdox ivermectin for COVID patent. That some of these aligned individuals have gone after those who call out their lies through social media, legal, and even physical intimidation is damning.
Even more damning is the increasing evidence that what once looked to be a group of disparate individuals and organizations seeking to appear to do good is an interconnected international web fueled by dark money and political ideology. As the pandemic has gone on a pattern emerges as science and journalism’s pursuit of truth reveals the extent of their web. Every retraction (there are currently 315 COVID papers on Retraction Watch) is one step closer to bringing down this house of cards built on hype, fraudulent studies, and disinformation for political and economic gain at the expense of people. In the UK, leaks into the internal messaging system used by the anti-public health political group the Health Advisory and Recovery Team revealed McCullough and Bannon’s international involvement in the coordination of disinformation messaging with government and media. The Koch dark money-tied, COVID-minimizing Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) that predated the early treatment movement and found similar success infiltrating the Trump White House was a coordinated effort between US physicians Dr. Jay Bhattacharya (Stanford) and Dr. Martin Kulldorff (Harvard, “on leave”) and UK epidemiologist Dr. Sunetra Gupta (Oxford). The fact that Charles Koch is a known member of the Council for National Policy that created AFLDS hardly comes as a surprise. The HSSCC report “The ‘Atlas Dogma’: The Trump Administration’s Embrace of a Dangerous and Discredited Herd Immunity via Mass Infection Strategy” is named after GBD-affiliate Dr. Scott Atlas (Stanford) who worked secretly with Jared Kushner in the Trump White House pushing ideology over science in the early days of the pandemic when strong leadership was vital. This prioritization of infection over collective action is the topic of a new book “We Want Them Infected” by Science Based Medicine’s Dr. Jonathan Howard and named after emails from Trump COVID advisor Dr. Paul Alexander, formerly part of the GBD spin off the Brownstone Institute.
The Washington Post Editorial Board recently published a review of a book by “Lessons from the Covid War: An Investigative Report” written by a group led by executive director of the 9/11 Commission Philip Zelikow. The report calls the US pandemic response “a collective national incompetence in government” and calls out then-President Trump’s prioritization of the stock market over the safety of his own citizens and his rage and those in the scientific community who did not feed him the COVID narrative he liked. Trump’s work with domestic and international bad actors and pandemic negligence had international consequences.
The Lancet has called the COVID-19 pandemic a “massive global failure” rife with leadership failures and misinformation. One must look beyond what happened in the US to understand how this network successfully pushed fake cures and caused distrust in objective truth and American innovation. Using studies of questionable reliability, if not outright fabricated, this international network pushed their support for repurposed drugs over life saving vaccines. This manufactured vaccine hesitancy and subsequent vaccine hoarding in wealthy countries like the US halted vaccination efforts worldwide. In COVID’s wake, disinformation has begun to be understood as the global threat it has always been. Thanks to the decisions made by American leadership early in the pandemic, economically and politically motivated disinformation and anti-science aggression were promoted.
An extreme example of the consequences of the political promotion of unproven treatments occurred in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro who, unlike Trump, is apparently unvaccinated. The Regional Council of Medicine of the State of Amazonas recently exonerated Brazilian endocrinologist Dr. Flavio Cadegiani of his crimes against humanities accusation for involvement in unregistered experimentation on unknowing human subjects with proxalutamide for COVID at a hospital in the region. This absence of consequence does not change the fact that in the course of running this unregistered study 200 people died of COVID. It also does not change that Cadegiani was on an ivermectin for COVID study with physicians from US and UK political anti-public health groups that was corrected due to lack of disclosure of conflicts of interest – including Cadegiani’s payments from ivermectin manufacturer Vitamedic.
One of the individuals on the paper with Cadegiani, Dr. Pierre Kory, is the founder of the US ivermectin physician group the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance. In December 2020 Kory testified before the US Senate calling ivermectin a “wonder drug” for COVID. In August 2021 Kory fell ill with the virus himself while taking a daily dose of his own medicine. Despite the drug’s failure to prevent COVID infection for Kory, he and his FLCCC have since been called out for pushing ivermectin for long COVID as well as RSV and flu without evidence to support its use. Ironically, several involved individuals often level accusations of ethical violations – even to the level of crimes against humanity – against those who work to expose their bad science. This harassment likely has contributed to the delay in piecing together what transpired in March 2020 and continues to this day.
Several Brazilian media and academic journal articles discuss the hospital-based hydroxychloroquine for COVID trials that occurred under Bolsonaro. The most noted entities are Prevent Senior and Hapvida, both Brazilian health plans that also own hospitals. The article by Fernando Hellmann and Nuria Homedes has the most concise timeline. Hellmann and Homedes’ paper contains several communications used to coordinate the popularization of hydroxychloroquine, including direct contact between Prevent Senior’s CEO and Didier Raoult. It shows the pressure and intimidation exerted on physicians by executives and politicians to prescribe hydroxychloroquine and other medications that were part of the “Early Treatment” of COVID. It also reveals the blatant violation of Article 35 of the Declaration of Helsinki and tactics used to coerce or deny a patient’s ability to provide informed consent. The harsh reality is that people died in these studies and that was covered up by leadership.
The demonstrated chronological mismatch in the often-cited hydroxychloroquine paper from Prevent Senior reveal it was all an elaborate farce. The Prevent Senior study was never peer-reviewed, clearly politically motivated, and used to spread disinformation. While the paper only focused on Prevent Senior, it surfaces the uncomfortable reality that several of Brazil’s HMOs were incentivized to “study” treatments for COVID with no proof of effectiveness. Even more incriminating is the timing of when several of these same HMOs began ordering several of the “Early Treatment” medications. Such fervent embrace of unproven treatments for COVID in Latin America hindered drug trials done elsewhere, as discussed in an October 2020 Nature piece.
If possible, this already disturbingly dystopian occurrence takes an even more bizarre turn when reviewing the timeline of events highlighted in Adam Roger’s article in Wired. Either two days before or the same day that Rigano and Todaro “published” their Google Docs white paper on hydroxychloroquine, an actual caring physician-scientist was approved to study the effects of hydroxychloroquine on COVID by the FDA. Publicly available sources confirm that Dr. David Boulware’s proposal to study hydroxychloroquine occurred before or on the same day the “mystery” white paper was published (see here, here, and here).
Dr. Boulware’s studies would eventually show that hydroxychloroquine was ineffective against COVID, but this would not stop politicians, one particular tech millionaire, and a web of grifting influencers and physicians from claiming otherwise. This especially vile tech entrepreneur is Steve Kirsch, the man who also funded Dr. Boulware’s study that started on between March 11-13, 2020 and ended in Kirsch questioning the results of the very study he financed. This study would become targeted and contested by the pro-hydroxychloroquine crowd and also the burgeoning pro-ivermectin movement, including Dr. Kory. Kirsch founded the US-based, Elon Musk-funded COVID Early Treatment Fund (CETF) and refused to admit failure of his other COVID pharma trials garnering him a scathing rebuke from his alma mater MIT in their Technology Review in October 2021. The CETF took over the web domain for the Teva pharmacy tied to AFLDS but it is not known if Kirsch was tied to the hydroxychloroquine group originally. He has gone on to collaborate with AFLDS members for his CETF-spin off the Vaccine Safety Research Foundation (VSRF), the Defeat the Mandates rally series he and the VSRF finance, and the widely debunked conspiracy film “Died Suddenly” promoted by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on Twitter.
The culmination of these efforts can only be described as a cluster fuck of misinformation and narcissism that permeated deep into politics. There was a lot of external commotion made by the Kirsch types while the less openly extreme but still no less dangerous worked directly with lawmakers long before Kirsch became a niche household name. Present for a Nov 19, 2020 Senate hearing were Dr. Harvey Risch, Dr. Peter McCullough, Dr. George Fareed, and future Biden COVID Advisor Dr. Ashish Jha. The first three of the four experts presented in favor of hydroxychloroquine using data from questionable studies, such as the ones previously mentioned from Brazil. Doctors Risch, McCullough, and Fareed have all made careers out of promoting their own work on repurposed drugs and fear-mongering against the COVID vaccines. McCullough, who appeared as a “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast guest amid the deadly omicron wave, is a member of Kirsch’s VSRF which has hosted far-right politicians, disinformation doctors, and anti-democracy bad actors like Steve Bannon/Roger Stone protege Jack Posobiec. Both Kirsch and McCullough have appeared on Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic” podcast. Bannon’s Chinese billionaire colleague Guo Wengui, a prominent pusher of COVID disinformation, has been arrested for other fraud.
The chair of the Nov 19, 2020 hearing was none other than far-right extremist Sen. Ron Johnson. This hearing was not the first nor last hearing that Johnson would chair, inviting experts from the extreme fringes of medical thought to promote treatments that went directly against the medical consensus. His five hour “COVID 2nd Opinion Panel” on January 24, 2022 with Dr. McCullough was paired with the launch of the Kirsch-funded, Joe Rogan-headlining Defeat the Mandates rally series in DC, just over a year after the Insurrection and featuring speakers from Stop the Steal, like Del Bigtree. Bigtree, an MAGA billionaire who works with the original disgraced anti-vax physician Andrew Wakefield, has called for “Nuremberg 2.0” for pro-vax physicians. Future 2024 Democrat “chaos candidate” for president and anti-vax emperor Robert F. Kennedy Jr. compared the plight of the unvaccinated to Anne Frank at Defeat the Mandates. Dr. Gold, who has been on the Mike Flynn fronted QAnon “ReAwaken America” tour both before and after her brief imprisonment, has made videos depicting her “enemy” California Medical Board President Kristina Lawson as a Nazi. Their messaging to their followers is extremely clear and makes opposing them extremely dangerous.
The lack of accountability against public health disinformation from a radicalized political movement continues to promote misinformation and the use of treatments for COVID that should have stopped in July of 2020. In a March 2022 ABCNews interview for a segment “The Truth About Ivermectin”, McCullough invited doctors and medical boards who question his integrity to “bring it on“. When there have been attempts to do so, he and his movement have cried victim and lawyered up. It is now 2023, over a million Americans deaths due to the virus (many of which could have been prevented), the pandemic has been incredibly financially costly, and there are increasingly alarming attacks on individuals in the pro-vax majority of healthcare workers from an increasingly desperate anti-vax movement still fed lies. Healthcare workers are exhausted from fighting the virus, misinformation, and hate. It is dangerous to fight disinformation in this divisive political climate and it should not be put on the backs of an already burnt out workforce. It is chaos for chaos’s sake and there’s no surprise that beyond Bannon, Russia is involved. When taking a global look at COVID disinformation, one cannot forget Vladimir Putin, a man very much guilty of crimes against humanity.
In May 2021 the Washington Post reported that Sen. Johnson ignored a summer 2020 FBI warning that he may be a target of a Russian disinformation campaign, branding it “completely useless and unnecessary”. He did this while serving as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee investigating now-President Joe Biden and son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine when the current POTUS was Barack Obama’s VP. Johnson spread both Trump’s Big Lie and the COVID Early Treatment Lies and cannot be trusted as a reliable source even as to his own involvement in political conspiracies. Meanwhile Dr./Sen. Paul, whose AAPS was called out in the HSSCC final report for having accused Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign of using “a covert form of hypnosis” to win both the popular and electoral votes, has suffered some embarrassment as his nephew and longtime Aide Jesse Benton, was sentenced to prison for funneling Russian money to the 2016 Trump campaign. Putin’s involvement in COVID disinformation has been recently documented extremely clearly by Heidi Cuda in her Byline Times Supplement piece “How Russia Joined With Anti-vaxxers to Wage Biological Warfare by Proxy Against the West”. It calls out the Council for National Policy, itself tied to Russia which should come to the surprise of no one who has made it this far or read the work of journalist and author Anne Nelson.
The exoneration Dr. Cadegiani et al are celebrating on social media comes at a time when Bolsonaro’s replacement Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has partnered with Putin (who we are in a proxy war with) and Chinese President Xi (who we may very well be in a war war with) on a new currency. Certainly the CNP’s doctor/crypto bro Todaro can understand the significance of forging alliances over money and the glaring political conflicts of interest they can create. Given the lack of accountability for disinformation doctors in the US can anyone really be surprised Cadegiani is going unpunished? Following another failed Bannon-aided coup, Bolsonaro was, until recently, like Trump, hiding out in Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida. This is the same state where Dr. Gold moved following her Insurrection arrest and immediately got a new medical license and where her AFLDS colleague Dr. Joseph Ladapo serves as State Surgeon General and was just busted for altering a vaccine study to sustain their political narrative.
Sens. Johnson and Paul won their 2022 Midterm re-election bids in part by running on campaigns of fighting Big Pharma greed. There’s plenty of real issues there, like Pfizer’s alarming spending on intellectual property lobbying and continued donations to anti-democracy politicians. But there is a staggering amount of small pharma greed and outright fraud in this deadly COVID snake oil business the global far-right has been running. The House GOP’s answer to the HSSCC, the closely named House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic (HSSCP), has been pathetic political theater by some of the bad actors named in the HSSCC reports. We must weed out from American medicine and politics those who have contributed to the unnecessary loss and damage to global life so we can start the process of giving the nation and world the accountability it deserves. This has been a senseless, coordinated assault on global public health and politics for the profit of a shadowy elite.