The first installment of a documentary called “Plandemic” stormed through social media this week, promising viewers on its website that the film will “expose the scientific and political elite who run the scam that is our global health system.” The video appeared across platforms, with individual uploads each garnering hundreds of thousands of views.
But the viral video, running nearly 26 minutes, weaves a grand conspiracy theory by using a host of false and misleading claims about the novel coronavirus pandemic and its origins, vaccines, treatments for COVID-19, and more.
The video is largely an interview with Judy Mikovits, a former chronic fatigue researcher who has lobbed a number of accusations against National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci. Mikovits was an author on a controversial 2009 study linking a retrovirus to chronic fatigue syndrome that was published in the journal Science, and then retracted in late 2011 after labs were unable to replicate the results and other issues were brought to light.
That same year, in September 2011, Mikovits was fired from her position as research director at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Nevada and arrested two months later after the institute alleged she stole a laptop, flash drives and other property with institute information. While Mikovits claims in the documentary that she was held in jail despite being charged with “nothing,” a criminal complaint from November 2011 shows she was charged with two felonies related to the stolen property. The charges were later dropped.
What followed was a years-long legal battle in which Whittemore won a civil judgment against Mikovits; Mikovits filed for bankruptcy; and Mikovits alleged that Whittemore defrauded the government by misusing federally funded research materials. The latter case was dismissed this year.
Mikovits recently co-authored a book with self-described “anti-vaxxer” Kent Heckenlively, with a forward by vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr., and has spoken at events aimed at discrediting vaccines.
In the video, she claims, “And they will kill millions as they already have with their vaccines.” It’s unclear what vaccines she’s referring to, but vaccines have been credited with saving millions of lives. For instance, according to one estimate by researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, the measles vaccine has saved more than 20 million lives across the globe from 2000 to 2016 alone.
In the sections below, we break down eight of the false, misleading and unfounded claims aired in “Plandemic.”
- Unfounded Attacks on Fauci
- Scientists: Novel Coronavirus Not ‘Manipulated’
- Misleading Claim on Wuhan Lab Funding
- Flu Vaccines Don’t Contain Coronaviruses
- No Evidence Flu Shot Increases Risk of COVID-19
- Hydroxychloroquine: Unproven COVID-19 Therapy
- Wrong Message on Masks
- False Suggestion About Ebola
The first part of the video focuses largely on two sweeping, but unrelated, accusations against Fauci, who also has been a fixture at the White House briefings on COVID-19.
Without offering any evidence, the video claims that Fauci was part of a “cover-up” and that he worked with other doctors to “take credit and make money” on the AIDS epidemic.
Filmmaker Mikki Willis sets the tone for this section of the video, saying to Mikovits, “So Anthony Fauci, the man who is heading the pandemic task force, was involved in a cover-up.” Willis, a former model, has a large following on YouTube, where he has previously claimed the novel coronavirus was “intentionally released.”
“He directed the cover-up,” Mikovits says. “And, in fact, everybody else was paid off, and paid off big time.”
But at no point in the video does anyone explain what Fauci supposedly covered up.
We asked Mikovits in a phone interview to explain. She said it was a reference to her 2009 research paper that was later retracted. Mikovits holds Fauci responsible and claims it was part of a “cover-up” on the part of the medical establishment to keep hidden her research linking a mouse retrovirus to chronic fatigue syndrome. In the years since the research was first published, Mikovits has expanded its reach, suggesting that it could apply also to prostate cancer, lymphoma, and autism.
The NIAID funded Mikovits’ initial research related to chronic fatigue syndrome, and, after she was fired, another researcher at Whittemore was awarded the remaining grant money. But there is no evidence that Fauci, personally, had anything to do with it. And the journal that published the paper made no mention of Fauci in its retraction. Rather, it explained it was “fully retracting” the paper because the results couldn’t be replicated, even in the same lab, and “there is evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments in the Report.”
As for the claim about the AIDS epidemic, that goes back much further. In the early 1980s, Mikovits was working as a technician at the National Cancer Institute. She claims that the lab she was in had identified the HIV virus from blood and saliva samples and prepared a paper detailing those findings that was slated for publication.
But, she says in the video, referencing one of the pioneers of AIDS research, Dr. Robert Gallo, “Fauci holds up the paper for several months, while Robert Gallo writes his own paper and takes all the credit.”
Mikovits could not provide the name of her lab’s paper or the journal that was going to publish it when we spoke to her, so we couldn’t check on that. But here’s what we do know about the timeline for AIDS research in the early 1980s:
1981 – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describing a rare lung infection in five young gay men in Los Angeles. Fauci would later recall seeing that article, saying in a 2011 interview, “I remember putting the issue to the side of my desk, thinking, ‘Wow, what a bizarre curiosity.’ One month later, in July, a second MMWR report came to my desk, and this time, an additional 26 men had it, again all gay, all seemingly healthy, and not only in LA, but now also in San Francisco and New York City. I remember reading it very clearly. It was the first time in my medical career I actually got goose pimples. I knew something was very wrong. It changed the direction of my career.”
Beyond the unsupported claim that Fauci — who didn’t become the director of NIAID until 1984 — stymied early AIDS research at the National Cancer Institute, Mikovits also claims that he has profited from the epidemic.
Referring vaguely to patents, Mikovits says in the video that Fauci was working with other researchers “to take credit and make money” on the AIDS epidemic. It’s true that Fauci’s name appears on at least six patents related to AIDS research. But it’s less clear how much he has profited from them. In 2005, the Health and Human Services Department was criticized for not disclosing how much government scientists were collecting from patent royalties. At the time, Fauci expressed concern over the potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest and said that he donated all of his royalty money to charity.
Mikovits makes a claim that numerous scientists have refuted: that the novel coronavirus “was manipulated” in a laboratory and is not “naturally occurring.”
“So it’s very clear this virus was manipulated, these, this family of viruses was manipulated and studied in a laboratory where the animals were taken into the laboratory,” she says in the video. “And this is what was released, whether deliberate or not, that cannot be naturally occurring. Somebody didn’t go to a market, get a bat. The virus didn’t jump directly to humans. That’s not how it works. That’s accelerated viral evolution. If it was a natural occurrence, it would take it up to 800 years to occur. This occurred from SARS-1 within a decade. That is not naturally occurring.”
The exact origin of the coronavirus is not known, but scientists have said the genetic features of SARS-CoV-2 indicate it was neither created in a lab nor manipulated.
“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” said an article published in Nature Medicine in March. Instead, the authors said it’s plausible that the coronavirus originated in one of two ways: “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer,” which refers to the spread of disease from animals to humans, or “natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.”
The authors said the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2 cannot be ruled out, but they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible” because they had observed “all notable SARS-CoV-2 features … in related coronaviruses in nature.”
In a statement in April, University of Sydney professor Edward Holmes, who was involved in mapping the genome of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, likewise said: “Coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 are commonly found in wildlife species and frequently jump to new hosts. This is also the most likely explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2.”
Holmes said there is “unfounded speculation” that a bat coronavirus named RaTG13, which was being kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was the origin of the new coronavirus. But, he explained, that is not the case, for several reasons.
“In summary, the abundance, diversity and evolution of coronaviruses in wildlife strongly suggests that this virus is of natural origin,” Holmes said. He added that more sampling of other animals “is needed to resolve the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2.”
Mikovits also may give viewers a false impression when she says the novel coronavirus “occurred from SARS-1,” which is a different coronavirus that caused a global outbreak in 2003.
SARS-CoV, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is similar but distinct from SARS-CoV-2. The viruses share about 79% of the same genetic make-up, but SARS-CoV-2 is even more closely related (96%) to the bat coronavirus from which Holmes has said SARS-CoV-2 wasn’t derived.
We’ve already written about a bogus analysis that suggested the new coronavirus could have leaked from a Chinese lab because a portion of its genome is similar to part of a viral vector that was used in previous research on SARS.
Kristian Andersen, the director of infectious disease genomics at the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told us in an email that analysis was “completely wrong.”
Also on the issue of the Wuhan lab, the video shows a clip claiming that “$3.7 million flowed from the National Institutes of Health here in the U.S. to the Wuhan lab in China” and that NIAID “had already been conducting experiments with the Wuhan lab in the past in regard to coronavirus.”
The project referenced, as other fact-checkers have previously reported, is actually funding from NIAID to EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based nonprofit that researches emerging infectious diseases. The project was done to “examine the risk of future coronavirus (CoV) emergence from wildlife using in-depth field investigations across the human-wildlife interface in China,” in particular the risk posed by bats, according to a 2014 description.
NIH records show the project was awarded nearly $3.4 million altogether. Most of the funding was through a five-year grant awarded in 2014, Robert Kessler, an EcoHealth spokesman, said in an email to us. The group was renewed for a second five-year grant in 2019 and received $292,161 — but NIH recently terminated the grant.
Of that money, only $600,000 (from the first grant) was given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Kessler said. The Wuhan lab was a collaborator that was pre-approved by NIH and the State Department, he added, and one that researchers used to conduct genetic analyses of the viruses.
“In each of nearly 30 countries around the world where we work, we collaborate with local institutions, all of which are pre-approved by our federal funders,” EcoHealth said in an April 28 statement about the terminated funding. “It’s been EcoHealth Alliance’s position for the past 15 years that coronaviruses present a clear and immediate threat to our safety. That seems clearer now than ever before.”
The group said its research “aimed to analyze the risk of coronavirus emergence and help in designing vaccines and drugs to protect us from COVID-19 and other coronavirus threats. In fact, genetic sequences of two bat coronaviruses that we discovered with this grant have been used as lab tools to test the breakthrough antiviral drug Remdesivir.”
So it’s incorrect, and also lacks context, to claim NIAID gave “$3.7 million” to the Wuhan lab.
Mikovits falsely claims that “if you’ve ever had a flu vaccine, you were injected with coronaviruses.”
“She’s wrong,” Dr. Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told us in a phone interview. “That’s not true.”
“This person doesn’t know what she is talking about,” Dr. Lee Riley, professor and chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, told us in an email, adding, “I think this person is just seeking publicity.”
In an interview, we asked Mikovits what support she had for the claim, and she didn’t provide any. She only said that flu vaccines are cultured in chicken eggs and dog kidney cells, and those animals have coronaviruses. It’s an extreme leap to then claim animal strains of coronaviruses end up in vaccines tested and approved for people. Mikovits further said she attributes the spread of the novel coronavirus worldwide “at least in part” to the use of the flu vaccine.
As we’ve explained before, coronaviruses are a diverse family of viruses, and some, such as canine coronavirus, infect animals. Those aren’t the same as SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
As for influenza vaccines, most are made using hen’s eggs, Offit explained, and about 10% of vaccines in the U.S. are cell-culture vaccines, which use mammalian cells instead of eggs. Specifically, the process uses Madin-Darby Canine Kidney, or MDCK, cells.
“These lines have been around for a long time,” Offit said. “This is a well-tested … cell line that does not contain coronavirus” and “would never be allowed to.”
On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on how egg-based and cell-based influenza vaccines are manufactured. A cell-based method that also used eggs at the beginning of the process received Food and Drug Administration approval in 2012, and a fully cell-based process got FDA approval in 2016.
The CDC notes that once vaccines are manufactured, “FDA tests and approves the vaccines prior to release and shipment.”
This cell-based technology has been used in other U.S. vaccines, “including vaccines for rotavirus, polio, smallpox, hepatitis, rubella and chickenpox,” the CDC says.
Mikovits also repeats the unsubstantiated claim that “the flu vaccines increase the odds by 36% of getting COVID-19,” which we’ve previously covered.
Experts say that there has been no study linking the flu shot to elevated risk for the novel coronavirus. The military study cited by Mikovits involved four types of seasonal coronaviruses that cause common colds, not SARS-CoV-2.
More than that, the results in the study that indicate a flu-vaccinated person had an increased likelihood of testing positive for a seasonal coronavirus do not appear to be adjusted for age groups or seasons. Those factors could affect someone’s chances of getting a specific virus, regardless of whether or not they’ve been vaccinated for the flu.
Multiple scientists have pointed out the same issue in other fact-checks, too, and have debunked the erroneous suggestion that the study looked at SARS-CoV-2.
The Military Health System told us in a statement that “the study does not show or suggest that influenza vaccination predisposes in any way, the potential for infection with the more severe forms of coronavirus, such as COVID-19.” MHS further said “it remains essential for people to obtain the seasonal flu shot each year as it becomes available.”
The video makes the unsubstantiated claim that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine is “the most effective medication to treat” COVID-19, citing a survey of doctors.
Shortly after that, Mikovits says hydroxychloroquine is “effective against these families of viruses,” referring to the family of coronaviruses, such as COVID-19, but “they keep it from the people.”
We have covered this ground before when President Donald Trump encouraged the off-label use of chloroquine and its derivative hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19 patients. Both drugs are used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
But there is only limited evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective for COVID-19, and it carries potential health risks.
The National Institutes of Health says there is “insufficient clinical data to recommend either for or against using chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19.”
Despite insufficient clinical data, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization, or EUA, order on March 28 that allowed for the drugs to be used as a treatment for some hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
A little less than a month later, the FDA issued a warning against using “hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems.” The warning came a few days after a study found that patients at Veterans Health Administration medical centers treated with hydroxychloroquine had an increased mortality risk compared with those that were not treated with the drug.
In the video, Mikovits says, “The AMA was saying doctors will lose their license if they use hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that’s been on the list of essential medicine worldwide for 70 years. Dr. Fauci calls that ‘anecdotal.’ It’s not storytelling if we have thousands of pages of data saying it’s effective against these families of viruses. This is essential medicine and they keep it from the people.”
It’s not true that the American Medical Association told doctors they “will lose their license if they use hydroxychloroquine” for COVID-19. The AMA issued a statement saying it opposed “purchasing excessive amounts” of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine for possible COVID-19 treatment. But it also said, “Novel off-label use of FDA-approved medications is a matter for the physician’s or other prescriber’s professional judgment.”
As for hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness against coronaviruses, we have written that at least two studies show that it has antiviral activity against the novel coronavirus in cells grown in the lab. But there is only anecdotal evidence that the drug works in people.
Trump cited in a tweet the results of a small clinical trial in France, but the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which publishes the journal in which the study appeared, later issued a statement that said “the article does not meet the Society’s expected standard, especially relating to the lack of better explanations of the inclusion criteria and the triage of patients to ensure patient safety.”
We cover this more extensively in our story “Trump Hypes Potential COVID-19 Drugs, But Evidence So Far Is Slim.”
In attacking public health measures taken to address the pandemic in the U.S., Mikovits wrongly suggests that using masks could lead to people infecting themselves with their own breath. “Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus,” Mikovits said. “You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions and if it happens to be SARS-CoV-2, then you’ve got a big problem.”
Experts were perplexed by what she meant and said the implication that simply breathing through a mask could lead to self-infection doesn’t square with science.
Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies airborne disease transmission, told us: “If you’re shedding (breathing out) virus, then you’re already infected. Even without a mask, infected people who are shedding virus probably rebreathe some of their own viruses, but there are already billions times more viruses in your body. Hopefully, the mask is protecting other people from your exhalations.”
And Lisa Brosseau, an expert on respiratory protection and infectious diseases and a certified industrial hygienist, said in an email that “viruses are not ‘activated’ by anything,” as Mikovits suggests.
Viruses instead “require living cells in order to replicate,” but their viability or ability to replicate isn’t affected whether someone is wearing a mask or not, said Brosseau, a former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. If anything, viruses in the environment can be “rendered non-viable by exposure to certain temperature” and relative humidity conditions.
“There is nothing magical about our breath that ‘activates’ or ‘reactivates’ a virus,” Brosseau said.
As we’ve previously written, while there is little research on cloth masks, the hope is that they can help prevent individuals, even those who do not feel sick, from unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to others. Brosseau said people should frequently wash cloth masks, though, and stressed that masks are not a substitute for social distancing. The CDC notes the same.
Mikovits says in the video: “In 1999, I was working in Fort Detrick … and my job was to teach Ebola how to infect human cells without killing them. Ebola couldn’t infect human cells until we took it in the laboratories and taught them.”
It’s not clear what she meant by that, and she didn’t explain when we asked about her claim.
But the suggestion that Ebola, which includes six species of ebolaviruses, didn’t infect people until 1999, or later, is false.
The first two species, Zaire ebolavirus and Sudan ebolavirus, were discovered after outbreaks in 1976 in Central Africa. Combined, those two viruses, which scientists believe may have come from bats or nonhuman primates (such as chimpanzees, apes, monkeys, etc.), killed about 430 people that year, according to the CDC.
Zaire ebolavirus — which is also linked to the largest Ebola outbreak which began in West Africa in 2014 — is said to have initially spread in 1976 through the use of contaminated needles and syringes at a hospital in the village where the first infected person was treated. And the Sudan ebolavirus is believed to have started with workers in a cotton factory.
In fact, the CDC says four of the six species of ebolavirus — Zaire ebolavirus, Sudan ebolavirus, Taï Forest ebolavirus (formerly Côte d’Ivoire ebolavirus) and Bundibugyo ebolavirus — are known to cause disease in people. And three of the four species were discovered prior to 1999.
A fifth species, Reston ebolavirus, was first discovered in 1989 in research monkeys imported into the U.S. from the Philippines. That species “is known to cause disease in nonhuman primates and pigs, but not in people,” the CDC says. There have been cases in which individuals developed Reston ebolavirus antibodies, but did not experience symptoms.
The sixth species, Bombali ebolavirus, was discovered in 2018 in a bat in Sierra Leone. It also is not known to infect humans.
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