Spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines has never been more lucrative. The past year has created a thriving online marketplace for unproven COVID-19 “wonder drugs,” fraudulent vaccination cards, fake religious or medical exemptions, and other products geared towards the millions of Americans who follow anti-vaccine groups and influencers, experts testified before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Wednesday.
The congressional hearing on the monetization of COVID-19 misinformation was the latest sign that, 20 months into the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers are turning their attention beyond combating misinformation to holding those who profit from it accountable.
“The Select Subcommittee is actively investigating those who exploit the fears of the American public to push and even profit from selling unproven coronavirus treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin,” said Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, the chair of the committee, noting these are medications that the “nation’s top public health agencies agree are ineffective against the coronavirus and can even cause harm.”
The committee announced last month that it was opening a probe into a right-wing anti-vaccine group called America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD) and its telehealth partner following a TIME investigation in August that revealed their ivermectin-selling scheme peddling bogus COVID-19 cures to desperate Americans. Since its founding last year by Dr. Simone Gold, a Los Angeles physician who was later arrested during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the group has grown a devoted following by spreading COVID-19 conspiracies popular in right-wing online circles.
Unlike some other groups that sell unproven COVID-19 medications, in the case of AFLD, the monetization of COVID-19 misinformation goes hand in hand with the spread of rampant anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. “For over a year now, fringe groups, right-wing figures and others have promoted…false rumors that vaccines cause infertility or alter DNA, and many other lies that have spread at lightning speed,” Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said at Wednesday’s hearing.
People like Gold “use their credentials to create uncertainty about vaccines and diminish the public’s trust in healthcare professionals and nurses while profiting from that uncertainty,” Dr. Kolina Koltai, a researcher who studies the anti-vaccine movement at the University of Washington, told lawmakers. “Spreading vaccine misinformation can be a profitable endeavor.”
Between July 16 and Sept. 12 this year, more than 281,000 patients signed up with SpeakWithAnMD, a telemedicine site set up by right-wing conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi. At least 90% of them were referred from AFLD, according to recently hacked data published by The Intercept that was cited at Wednesday’s hearing. They paid a $90 fee for the telehealth visit which did not include the cost of the medications. In those two months, patients paid an estimated $6.7 million for consultations, according to The Intercept. It also created an opportunity for online pharmacies willing to fill these prescriptions. An Oct. 20 TIME investigation revealed how Ravkoo, the troubled digital pharmacy used by AFLD whose owners had a record of healthcare fraud allegations, racked up an estimated $8.5 million in sales of ivermectin, azithromycin, hydroxychloroquine and zinc.
In letters to Gold, Corsi, and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan, Clyburn cited TIME’s Aug. 26 investigation, which found that hundreds of AFLD customers and donors paid for the group’s service promising prescriptions to treat or prevent the virus, and then accused the group of failing to deliver. Dozens of messages reviewed by TIME over the summer showed customers trying to reach AFLD or its pharmacies as they or their family members grew sicker waiting for medication rather than going to a doctor.
One of the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing, Dr. Jeffrey Aeschlimann, a professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Connecticut, testified about a patient’s experience he first shared with TIME in October. This patient had resorted to hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin he purchased through AFLD’s pharmacy partner rather than seeking out medical care, landing him in the hospital for a week with a severe infection.
“At this point in the pandemic, many individuals have spent hundreds of dollars and have put their health in jeopardy using unproven therapies over proven-effective therapies,” Aeschlimann testified Wednesday. “Effective vaccines and therapies would have lowered their risks of developing severe COVID-19 infections, prevented unnecessary and costly hospitalizations, and even prevented COVID infection deaths.”
Some Republicans on the committee used their time to question the witnesses on the origins of the virus, though the witnesses emphasized that they were not qualified to comment on that topic. “Do you think we need to find out how this virus started? Did it start in the lab? Did it come from a bat, to a penguin, to a hippopotamus to people, or whatever they say, do you think we need to figure that out?” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan asked Aeschlimann, a pharmacist. Other Republicans disputed the premise that the COIVD-19 misinformation the committee is investigating is actually dangerous. “Is it misinformation to dispute the CDC’s recommendation for masking children? Is it misinformation to say that it’s not necessary to vaccinate every single man woman and child?” asked Tennessee Rep. Mark Green.
The committee has asked Gold and Corsi to submit detailed records, including revenue figures, the number of prescriptions they provided, contracts between their online businesses, ownership documents, and how they verified that their doctors were qualified. AFLD did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Rep. Clyburn has also asked the FTC to open an investigation into AFLD and SpeakWithAnMD. “The promotion of falsehoods about coronavirus, questionable treatments, and vaccines is life-threatening,” he wrote to Khan in an Oct. 29 letter. “I believe these deceptive practices may also violate the FTC Act, the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, or other relevant laws.” An FTC spokesman declined to comment on the investigation.
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