The Worst Charlatans of the Covid-19 Pandemic In The U.S.

The Worst Charlatans of the Covid-19 Pandemic In The U.S.

For some people, crisis is an opportunity. More specifically, an opportunity to blow up their own profile by preying on people’s fears, making baseless claims, grabbing resources intended for others, and being generally dishonest, disingenuous, or greedy.

A comprehensive list of those matching this archetype over the gruelling months of the covid-19 pandemic would be far too large to relay in full. But it would include a former president, medical professionals spreading exaggerated or simply fabricated claims about how best to fight the virus, amateur statisticians claiming their analyses proved the virus wasn’t dangerous, fraudsters, far-right activists looking to convert influence into money, and wealthy businesses that filled their coffers.

So we sliced and diced that list down to a palatable sample size of seven. We’ve excluded Donald Trump out of fairness to the other contenders. Here’s what they’ve been up to since everything went to shit in early 2020.

Didier Raoult

Photo: Seyllou / AFP via, Getty Images
Photo: Seyllou / AFP via, Getty Images

The French physician and microbiologist sprung to widespread fame after his research team posted a study in March 2020 asserting that the antiparasitic drug hydroxychloroquine, which is commonly used to treat malaria, is “significantly associated with viral load reduction/disappearance in COVID-19 patients and its effect is reinforced by” the antibiotic azithromycin. While various internet rumours about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine were already circulating, Didier Raoult is the director of the Research Unit in Infectious and Tropical Emergent Diseases (URMITE) in Marseille. His study and endorsement attracted a tidal wave of attention and raised hopes that a miracle treatment for the novel coronavirus did exist.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine in certain situations, hoping that it might indeed prove effective, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced it would start experimental trials. Some doctors across the nation rushed to write scripts for their families and loved ones, potentially risking their careers in the process. Donald Trump’s administration bought 63 million doses of the drug. Donald Trump personally claimed to be taking hydroxychloroquine as an off-label preventative (despite the lack of evidence it worked that way).

The only problem? The study was bullshit, and global trials of hydroxychloroquine failed to find any benefit for covid-19 patients. Raoult had something of a reputation in the French scientific community for a lack of integrity in his research and swaggering, bullying demeanour in the workplace, while scientists began shooting holes in Raoult’s original report. As Science Mag reported, the sample size was just 20 patients and poorly selected at that; basic data appeared to have been manipulated, obfuscated, or outright hidden; and the peer review process was rushed in under 24 hours and resulted in publication in a journal Raoult effectively controlled, the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemistry (ISAC). Its editor-in-chief was one of the co-authors of the paper.

The WHO eventually halted trials after concluding hydroxychloroquine was useless, while the FDA revoked the emergency use authorization. ISAC effectively disowned Raoult’s research. But the damage was done: The supposed efficacy of hydroxychloroquine was taken as gospel by conspiracy theorists, who spread rumours far and wide that scientists were suppressing that information at the behest of “deep state” liberals, Big Pharma, or what have you.

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny

Hoo boy. Sherri Tenpenny is a Cleveland-based physician with a reputation for spreading baseless claims about the novel coronavirus (which she called a “scamdemic”) and vaccines in general. Among those fabricated claims were assertions Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine can cause genetic defects in sperm that cause congenital disabilities, and that covid-19 vaccines will wreak havoc on the lungs, causing auto-immune disease among both adults and children and killing many “directly.”

But that all pales beside her biggest whopper. Addressing legislators in the Ohio House in early June, Tenpenny claimed that people who received the vaccines would become magnetized. Really. We’re not joking.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures all over the internet of people who have had these shots and now they’re magnetized,” Tenpenny said, according to the Washington Post. “They can put a key on their forehead. It sticks. They can put spoons and forks all over them and they can stick, because now we think that there’s a metal piece to that.”

She also argued that somehow, the vaccine was interfacing with next-generation wireless communications technology being rolled out around the globe: “There’s been people who have long suspected that there’s been some sort of an interface, ‘yet to be defined’ interface, between what’s being injected in these shots and all of the 5G towers.”

According to the Post, a number of Republican representatives present at Tenpenny’s testimony praised her, with one calling her “enlightened.”

As part of a demonstration to the assembled legislators, a woman who identified herself as a nurse defended Tenpenny’s remarks by attempting to stick a key to her neck. It didn’t work.

“Explain to me why the key sticks to me. It sticks to my neck too,” the woman told the Ohio House as the key repeatedly fell off her neck. “Yeah, if somebody could explain this, that would be great.”

Dr. Stella Immanuel and “America’s Frontline Doctors”

While Tenpenny’s beliefs may be absurd, another doctor somehow managed to one-up her. In July 2020, a group calling itself “America’s Frontline Doctors” staged a PR stunt of a press conference in D.C, telling reporters that the cure for coronavirus was hydroxychloroquine and urging the public not to wear masks.

Their video of the depraved event, as well as versions uploaded by sites like far-right clickbait operation Breitbart, suddenly went viral on — and were subsequently removed from — Facebook and Twitter. Cries that the doctors were being censored became a sort of cause célèbre on the right, with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson accusing social networks of censoring the event on behalf of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Dr. Anthony Fauci and suggesting criticism was rooted in racism.

So who were America’s Frontline Doctors, really? For one, their event was organised by the Tea Party Patriots, a sprawling network of conservative groups funded in part by anonymous donors. According to the Daily Beast, one of the group’s members was Dr. Stella Immanuel, a minister who believes that extraterrestrial DNA is being secretly inserted into medical treatments, vaccines are engineered to make people less religious, and, perhaps most alarmingly, that conditions including endometriosis, cysts, infertility, and impotence are caused by sex with “spirit husbands” and “spirit wives.”

In Immanuel’s telling, these spirit spouses are actually Biblical “nephilim,” which are evil spirits that lust after sex with humans in their dreams. The Daily Beast wrote:

“They are responsible for serious gynecological problems,” Immanuel said. “We call them all kinds of names — endometriosis, we call them molar pregnancies, we call them fibroids, we call them cysts, but most of them are evil deposits from the spirit husband,” Immanuel said of the medical issues in a 2013 sermon. “They are responsible for miscarriages, impotence — men that can’t get it up.”

… “They turn into a woman and then they sleep with the man and collect his sperm,” Immanuel said in her sermon. “Then they turn into the man and they sleep with a man and deposit the sperm and reproduce more of themselves.”

Other members of America’s Frontline Doctors included Dr. James Todaro, a bitcoin promoter whose Google Doc on hydroxycholorquine became a conservative chain letter extending to the president; Dr. Simone Gold, a reliable fixture on right-wing TV networks looking for someone to denounce lockdowns; and Dr. Daniel W. Erickson, a backer of the “herd immunity” theory that suggested letting the virus take its course so people could move on with their lives. Jenny Beth Martin, one of the principal leaders of the Tea Party Patriots organisation, also spoke at the event.

The Dorr Brothers

Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP, Getty Images
Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP, Getty Images

Early last year, many state and municipal governments frantically began issuing stay-at-home orders and restrictions on gatherings and business activities as part of a last-ditch bid to slow down the spread of the pandemic. They were opposed by conservative activists who organised protests demanding health authorities rescind those orders. Some of the rallies were massive. Many of them had a heavy presence of gunmen and armed anti-government militias. And virtually all of them were composed largely of anti-maskers who refused to cover their faces, spouting ill-advised pseudoscience and promoting a conspiracy theory the lockdowns were designed to hurt Trump’s political standing.

As it turns out, many of those protests can be traced to just four people with a total of five separate words in their names. Investigations showed that brothers and pro-gun activists Aaron, Ben, Chris, and Matthew Dorr, who had a long history of staging far-right political stunts, had quickly assembled a network of five Facebook groups with total membership in the hundreds of thousands, which became key launching points for the rallies. Those included Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine, New Yorkers Against Excessive Quarantine, Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine, Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine and Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine (noticing a trend here).

The Dorr brothers sat on the board of the American Firearms Coalition, as well as served as directors, authors, advisers, or in other roles on groups including Wyoming Gun Owners, Iowa Gun Owners, Ohio Gun Owners, Minnesota Gun Rights, and the Missouri Firearms Coalition. Many of their Facebook pages posted links leading to their other pro-gun projects, and at least one other major anti-lockdown group, American Revolution 2.0, reportedly communicated with them. Given the overlap, it’s hardly a mystery that so many gun-toting weirdos showed up to anti-lockdown protests organised via the pages, and that in turn may have played a role in Trump’s rhetoric asserting the anti-coronavirus measures were somehow a prelude to mass gun seizures.

However, the Dorr brothers had more than spreading anti-lockdown, pro-gun rhetoric in mind. They’re also well known for cashing in on their political projects. According to the Washington Post, the brothers have in some cases tried to skirt lobbyist registration rules by instead describing themselves as involved in “pro-gun grassroots mobilisation,” and they’re notorious for trying to direct conservative followers into signing up for pricey memberships in dubious pro-gun groups. (The price tag for the Wisconsin Firearms Coalition? $US35 ($47) to $US1 ($1),000 ($1,344).) NBC News, it reported that the brothers’ pro-gun and anti-abortion rights Facebook groups have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

NBC wrote that the Dorrs have gathered such a negative reputation that Republicans in the Minnesota Senate set up a website warning off prospective donors:

A 2019 investigation by Fox affiliate KMSP-TV of Minneapolis-St. Paul found that Minnesota Gun Rights continued to raise money through memberships, boasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual donations, although the IRS had revoked the group’s tax-exempt status in 2016 for failing to file Form 990s. The IRS reinstated its tax-exempt status in 2019. According to tax documents, the group raised $US273,000 ($366,830) in 2018, the most recent year for which it filed.

In February, Minnesota’s Senate Republican Caucus launched a website warning voters against the Dorr-backed “scams.”

A Minnesota anti-abortion group has also called the brothers scammers, while another website titled has numerous accounts of the Dorrs raising money for various conservative causes, only for the money to seemingly evaporate.

Robert Kennedy

Photo: Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Waterkeeper Alliance, Getty Images
Photo: Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Waterkeeper Alliance, Getty Images

For decades, the Kennedy family was one of the most powerful political dynasties in the country, the most famous of which need no introduction: President John F. Kennedy, his brothers Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy, and his son, JFK Jr.

Then there’s Robert Kennedy Jr., JFK’s nephew, who has spent his career both as an environmental activist and as one of the nation’s most prominent anti-vax conspiracy theorists via his role as the chair of Children’s Health Defence. For years, that group has launched scientifically baseless accusations that vaccines, fluoridated drinking water, acetaminophen, aluminium, wireless technology, and other chemicals and technologies are responsible for autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cancer, allergies, autoimmune conditions, and basically any other condition that pops up in children. Other members of the Kennedy clan famously wrote a letter in 2019 saying that while RFK Jr. was “one of the great champions of the environment,” he has “helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”

The coronavirus pandemic presented a golden opportunity for RFK Jr. to continue promoting anti-vax causes, which he did with relish. In May 2021, a report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Anti-Vax Watch named Kennedy as one of the 12 individuals with massive online followings who were disproportionately responsible for the spread of anti-vax conspiracy theories on Facebook and Twitter. According to Vanity Fair, groups like Anti-Vax Watch say that Kennedy is particularly dangerous among the “Disinformation Dozen” because he is the only one with widespread name recognition outside of preexisting anti-vax circles.

As Vanity Fair noted, RFK Jr. is, surprisingly, “spectacularly educated,” with an undergrad degree from Harvard, London School of Economics classes, a University of Virginia law degree, and a master’s in environmental law from Pace University. Yet he has no scientific background whatsoever.

Via “The Defender,” Children’s Health Defence’s blog, RFK Jr. has misinterpreted Centres for Disease Control (CDC) statistics to insist that coronavirus vaccines have resulted in mass injury and death, rattled off debunked claims that the CDC wildly inflated coronavirus death counts, and speculated that baseball legend Hank Aaron’s death was caused by the Moderna MRNA vaccine. (RFK Jr. claims that his remarks on Aaron were misinterpreted as asserting a conclusive link and that he merely meant to suggest that his death was “part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly closely following administration of COVID vaccines.”) His group also released a documentary in March 2021 called Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, which splices the sordid history of racist medical atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment with interviews of Black Americans about coronavirus vaccines.

NPR reported that the film is laden with misinformation, expounding on the non-existent link between vaccines and autism, misinterpreting scientific studies (at least one of which was retracted) to claim Black individuals are particularly at risk for vaccine injury, and asserting that covid-19 pandemic is “propaganda.” Two credible experts, Yale medical historian Naomi Rogers and past National Medical Association president Dr. Oliver Brooks, told NPR they regretted appearing in the film. (CHD denies the film contains misinformation, telling NPR it contains “peer reviewed sources and historical data.)

Rogers told the news agency she felt misled and “used,” had “enormous problems” with the film’s narrative, and that it had taken many of the ideas she feels for “passionately, like health disparities, fighting racism in health, working against discrimination, and it’s been twisted for the purposes of this anti-vax movement.” The overall intent of the film, according to the McGill Office for Science and Society, is to convince Black people they are being used as guinea pigs for coronavirus vaccines, despite the fact they have experienced disproportionately low access to vaccines for much of the pandemic.

According to Vanity Fair, RFK Jr. has held lavish fundraisers for anti-vax causes, such as a $US150 ($202)-a-head event at California’s Malibu Fig Ranch in September 2020, and later this year he is scheduled to release a book titled The Real Anthony Fauci: Big Pharma’s Global War on Democracy, Humanity, and Public Health. Seemingly the only real pushback he’s received from social media firms was his February 2021 ban on Instagram. RFK Jr. still has nearly 235,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 270,000 on Twitter. Children’s Health Defence has nearly 149,000 followers on Facebook, nearly 70,000 on Twitter, and over 45,000 on YouTube, with over 2.7 million video views.

Alex Berenson

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Alex Berenson was primarily known for one thing: His 2019 book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, which received overwhelmingly negative reviews and was widely lambasted in the scientific community as an alarmist diatribe that disingenuously misinterpreted and cherry picked data to make wild claims about the link between marijuana use and severe mental disorders. The covid-19 pandemic provided Berenson with an entirely new audience for his brand of contrarianism.

Dubbed the “Pandemic’s Wrongest Man” by the Atlantic, Berenson has no scientific background but has spun himself on Twitter and Fox News as a master interpreter of epidemiological and medical research fearlessly challenging nanny-state chastising about the coronavirus. (While he markets himself as the lone rational man standing in opposition to Big Epidemiology-Media Complex, Berenson is also fond of bragging that he used to be a reporter for the New York Times.) He’s been extraordinarily confident in his own abilities and regularly compares scientists and health authorities to cults, even as he struck out on prediction after prediction.

In October 2020, Berenson mocked Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predictions of a U.S. death toll of over 500,000 by spring 2021. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine estimates the current death toll at 605,000, a number that studies have indicated is almost certainly an underestimate. Berenson has pointed to data showing vaccines are safe as evidence they are actually causing severe illness; displayed a complete lack of understanding as to how vaccines affect the immune system; and regularly suggested that the non-elderly are worse off vaccinated than not, despite the CDC’s weekly mortality report now pegging the U.S. death toll under the age of 65 from the virus at over 122,000. He claimed that data from early in Israel’s vaccination program proved coronavirus vaccines were underperforming disastrously, even though it later became known as one of the most effective programs in the world.

Berenson has, at least in the short term, benefited immensely from his hard pivot to crank. He regularly appeared on Fox News shows such as Sean Hannity’s and Tucker Carlson’s, even scoring a special Fox Nation program called (we shit you not) Covid Contrarian. This fall, he’s releasing a book called Pandemia, which claims that the pandemic was an excuse for government officials to deprive citizens of their rights and impose draconian control over everyday life.

Big Businesses That Raked in Paycheck Protection Program Funds

Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images

Big Businesses That Raked in Paycheck Protection Program Funds

In March 2020, Congress passed the $US2.2 ($3) trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The massive stimulus program gave checks of $US1,200 ($1,612) to taxpayers, funded $US260 ($349) billion in increased unemployment benefits, and started the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which set aside $US350 ($470) billion in forgivable loans (later expanded to $US669 ($899) billion and then $US953 ($1,281) billion in subsequent rounds) to employers that didn’t lay off workers. The ostensible purpose of the PPP was to safeguard jobs at small to mid-sized firms that didn’t have financial cushions to ride the pandemic out, helping forestall economic collapse.

The vast majority of individual loans went to good use, protecting jobs at small to medium sized businesses across the country and providing a critical firewall for those businesses at the height of the pandemic. But rules for who qualified were vague, and Trump’s Small Business Administration (SBA) delegated the process of choosing who got the money to banks, many of which rushed to provide their wealthier clients with preferential access to the new lines of credit. That meant as the first round of funds went dry, many companies with the least need had already tapped in.

When the program rolled out in April with the initial $US350 ($470) billion in funds, the SBA issued a warning that big banks and large chains that had made a run on the available funding without any particular need to do so should consider returning funds. By July 2020, a total of $US30 ($40) billion in loans had been returned or cancelled, including $US435 ($585) million of the more than $US1 ($1).3 ($2) billion nearly 450 public companies disclosed receiving. That list included the Los Angeles Lakers, a luxury cruise line, sandwich chain Potbelly’s, the holding company that owns Ruth’s Chris Steak House, an online aftermarket auto parts seller, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, real estate firms, telecommunications equipment manufacturers, and more. The combined market cap of the nearly 450 companies was estimated at nearly $US35 ($47) billion.

That month, ProPublica highlighted a hospital and therapy centre chain called Vibra Healthcare which used a series of limited liability companies to blow past the $US10 ($13) million maximum and collect $US97 ($130) million in loans. The site found a Las Vegas casino operator used similar tricks to get 20 loans, while an Illinois nursing home chain got 51 loans and another nursing home chain in Georgia got 19 loans. Their investigation turned up $US516 ($693) million in funds that went to just 15 organisations.

Amanda Fischer, the Washington Centre for Equitable Growth’s policy director, told ProPublica that funds should be available for every employer, big or small, “But if we’re not going to do that, I do understand concerns about businesses that don’t technically comply, and it’s not a good look.”

“It’s Congress’ fault,” Fischer told ProPublica. “We should have helped everyone, or targeted the neediest businesses instead.”

In September 2020, staffers for the Democratic majority on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found that nearly 11,000 loans worth a total of over $US1 ($1) billion went to borrowers who received more than one loan (despite SBA rules stating companies could only receive one). They wrote in a report that there was a frustrating lack of oversight in the program. A December 2020 analysis in the Washington Post found most of the money in the $US522 ($701) billion the PPP doled out by August went out to just a fraction of all recipients, with just 5% of borrowers getting more than half the funds. Around 600 large businesses received the maximum loan of $US10 ($13) million.

According to the New York Times, just 1% of lenders got a quarter of the money, while minority-owned businesses got disproportionately little funding.

The Project on Government Oversight’s Liz Hempowicz told the Post, “The data shows that this program primarily benefited the well-banked and well-lawyered at the expense of the small businesses it was supposed to benefit.” She added that as it was easier for companies with banking connections to receive funds early on, “Businesses in that top 5 per cent likely have access to other capital. These are not the ones you would traditionally think of as a small business.”

“It really raises questions about what the priorities of this SBA are,” Hempowicz added. “Is it to help small business, or is it to return money to the top segment of the economy?”

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