Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) appeared in an interview with anti-vaccine lawyer Todd Callender, JD, last week and made headlines for saying it “may be true” that the COVID-19 vaccines cause AIDS. This came after Callender’s flagrantly false statement that the “shots caused vaccine-induced AIDS. They purposefully gave people AIDS.” While Johnson’s spokeswoman released a statement attempting to clarify that Johnson “does not believe that COVID vaccines cause AIDS” and that “he pushed back on the individual that claimed this during a zoom call,” this fails to account for Johnson’s own comments during the interview or to address why he was talking with Callender in the first place.
At the core of the issue is that this ongoing spread of COVID disinformation from politicians, doctors, lawyers, and others with a significant following continues to rock public health to the utmost degree. We must fight to close this flooding disinformation pipeline before it drowns us.
A Barrage of Misinformation
First, let’s review what Johnson said:
“Let me challenge you there. That’s way down the road. I mean, you gotta do one step at a time. Everything you say may be true, OK, but right now the public views the vaccines as largely safe and effective, that vaccine injuries are rare and mild. That’s the narrative, that’s what the vast majority of the public accepts. So until we get a larger percentage of the population with their eyes open to ‘whoa, these vaccine injuries are real, why?’ You know, it’s gotta be step by step. You can’t leap to crimes against humanity. You can’t leap to another Nuremberg trial.”
At first glance, this is hardly a strong rebuttal from the Wisconsin senator. Upon deeper analysis, it’s downright troubling. Johnson’s mention of the Nuremberg trials (which ended in public hangings of Nazis following WWII) falls in line with the messages professed by antivax physicians like two authors of the Great Barrington Declaration — the Koch Industries-linked, pro-economy “let it rip” COVID strategy. Last month, opponents of AB2098, the California bill to categorize the spread of disinformation as unprofessional conduct by physicians and surgeons, hurled Nuremberg threats at the physicians and lawmakers testifying in support. There are still threats of violence in a capitol building a year and a half after the deadly insurrection.
The anti-vaccine movement has ties to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection as well. Simone Gold, MD, JD, who founded America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD), a group that has pushed unproven COVID therapies throughout the pandemic, has pled guilty to her involvement on January 6. She was photographed with a megaphone inside the Capitol building, where she announced, “I am a Stanford-educated attorney!” and is now facing up to 6 months in jail. Gold’s AFLD colleague Bret Barker, DNP, FNP, RN, the CEO of Nuremberg 2.0 LTD, was listed in formal opposition to AB2098. In September 2021, Joseph Ladapo, MD, PhD, who has praised and appeared with AFLD, was sworn in as Florida’s Surgeon General, further legitimizing Gold’s anti-science agenda. Callender also appeared with AFLD prior to his meeting with Johnson.
Gold is currently out on bail and has made appearances on the far-right “REAWAKEN America” church tour with Trump-aligned Roger Stone and QAnon-aligned General Michael Flynn. Stone himself has been getting more involved in the anti-vaccine world in Canada, whose own far-right movement has ties to Steve Bannon. Fans of the disgraced Flynn receive pamphlets at these events on how to prepare for war. Meanwhile, antivax doctors Robert Malone, MD, Peter McCullough, MD, and Pierre Kory, MD, have all appeared on Bannon’s War Room podcast, which is still available on many platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Audible. The threat of even more violence is very real and is being encouraged.
Johnson is using his political power to give a voice to attorneys for physicians who are themselves extremists. Gold has proven herself to be a radical. Johnson allows her to further radicalize others by engaging with their organizations and affiliates. This is the political disinformation pipeline, and we’ve seen how this story ended on Jan. 6, 2021.
Just like with COVID-19 and vaccines, we have a way to prevent this, and that is through transparency and accountability.
The Public Health Threat
While the disinformation pipeline remains open, so too does the public risk of COVID-19, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable, including the youngest among us who have not been able to get their first dose of the life-saving vaccines, much less a booster. Adults who have yet to be vaccinated likely won’t do so, but we need to ensure parents have accurate information on the pediatric vaccine. Parents of children under 5 are still waiting on word from the FDA on authorization for vaccine eligibility in a nation whose patience with COVID has run short. More than 1,200 American children have already died from this virus and over 250,000 have lost a parent or primary caregiver. When it comes to kids’ deaths, a small percentage is still a devastating loss to a family and community, especially when it could have been prevented. When did we become so callous? Beyond the risk of infection, hospitalization, and death to children directly, they serve as ideal vectors for further spread of the disease to others more likely to suffer the serious complications of this nasty virus. This is about all of us, young or old, healthcare worker or not.
Disinformation has, by design, already eroded faith in medicine and our public health institutions. The reality is that had our nation been encouraged by elected leadership to listen to the medical experts when COVID-19 hit the U.S. over 2 years ago, we likely never would have found ourselves in the position of mourning 1 million American lives lost. We will need guidance from true medical experts for non-COVID related matters moving forward. Johnson’s re-election and Gold’s ego cannot be placed above public health, the safety of public health workers, and the strength of our democracy.
Gold still holds both her medical and legal licenses. AB2098 passed out of committee in California, home of the disgraced physician-lawyer. To date, just one AFLD physician who used Gold’s telemedicine platform to fill prescriptions for unproven and ineffective COVID-19 treatments has had their license revoked.
We need to expose this small but vocal minority of doctors swaying the public discussion on vaccines as well as their big donors and political allies. That is how you close the disinformation pipeline. They are fighting to keep COVID disinformation’s Broad Street pump open for personal profit. We must fight back to close it.
Allison Neitzel, MD, is a COVID misinformation researcher and writer from the Milwaukee area. She founded a nonprofit, MisinformationKills, to fight back against political medical misinformation, to support young science writers, and to galvanize young voters in her home state of Wisconsin and beyond.