One source of misinformation is America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), an organization that, despite its name, is not made up of doctors on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.
The world is facing two concurrent pandemics: the first, COVID-19, may finally be reaching a turning point with the introduction of vaccines, though it could still be months before some standard of normalcy is achieved. The second pandemic, an avalanche of coronavirus misinformation, is proving to be far more impervious to treatment and eradication.
Though worldwide deaths from the virus reached two million roughly one year into the pandemic (the global death toll now stands at 2.36 million, with 107.7 million cases), there are many who continue to insist it is nothing serious. From the beginning, skeptics have claimed that COVID-19 is no worse than a flu, even though roughly a billion people get the flu each year and the high end of its death toll is 650,000.
One source of misinformation is America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), an organization that, despite its name, is not made up of doctors on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic. The AFLDS is responsible for a viral video last summer that featured nearly a dozen apparent doctors in lab coats making numerous debunked claims, including that hydroxychloroquine is a cure for the coronavirus.
AFLDS and its members have been critical of Dr. Anthony Fauci and calls for mask mandates. They have also embraced other questionable beliefs, such as the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. The organization’s founder, Simone Gold, is a physician who was recently arrested as part of the coup attempt at the United States Capitol on January 6.
Dr. Lee Merritt
Another member of AFLDS who appears to have been in Washington, DC on the day of the riot is Dr. Lee Merritt. She stated as much in a recent interview with Alex Newman, the senior editor of “The New American,” an offshoot of the far-right conspiracy factory, the John Birch Society (JBS).
Among the JBS’ founding political philosophies was opposition to civil rights in the 1960s. The group’s founder, Robert Welch, had an obsession with deep state actors and secretive cabals reminiscent of QAnon core beliefs.
Merritt has an impressive resume as an orthopedic surgeon and military doctor. However, she is also the former president of the conservative medical advocacy group the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), which opposes vaccines, the Affordable Care Act and all government healthcare, including Medicare.
The AAPS has denied there is a link between the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS (there is), but claims there is a causal link between abortions and breast cancer (there is not).
Dr. Merritt has certainly accomplished a great deal as a surgeon, including being the first woman to receive the Louis A. Goldstein Spine Surgery Fellowship at the Rochester Strong Memorial Hospital in New York. Nonetheless, her claims about COVID-19, vaccines and other matters related to the pandemic are questionable at best, dangerous at worst.
[Editor’s note: TMS reached out to the University of Rochester for comment about Dr. Merritt’s association with their hospital. As of press time, they had not responded.]
Though some of Merritt’s claims – including that China weaponized the virus as an intentional act of war on the US – lack sufficient substance to be given attention here, her scientific assertions warrant examination, if only because as a doctor, Merritt has the appearance of authority on the subject.
TMS reached out to multiple experts in the fields of virology and vaccines so they could specifically address the claims Merritt made in the interview with Newman. (TMS is not sharing the video so as to not further the spread of misinformation, but as of this writing, it is still available on YouTube.)
Among our guest experts is Dr. Rachel Breyta, a researcher at the University of Washington whose doctorate is in the field of virology and epidemiology. Breyta provides clarification on Merritt’s use – or misuse – of concepts related to virology.
Additionally, we include the responses of Amy Baxter, MD, FAAP, FACEP, the chief executive officer and chief medical officer for the Atlanta, Georgia-based Pain Care Labs.
Drs. Breyta and Baxter respond to Merritt’s claims, which are quoted directly from the video or summarized when necessary. As readers will see, while some of what Merritt states is based in sound scientific theory and facts, her broader claims are frequently inaccurate or completely disconnected from the science.
Their responses have been copied in full (with minor edits for clarity) to avoid any editorial slant.
Dr. Lee Merritt’s claims
Claim 1: The virus is biologically manipulated (i.e., intentionally created) and purposely released. “Coronavirus is a naturally occurring, very benign virus that doesn’t even give most people the cold, but at the most it gives you the common cold. It doesn’t kill you, doesn’t make you very sick but what they’ve done is, [they’ve made it] the transmission device [for a deadly disease].”
Breyta: Viral genomes are very complex and our understanding of how they work is simply not advanced enough to enable anyone to create one that would accomplish any specific goal. Viruses have been around longer than humans have, and they are very good at changing to take advantage of their environment. Fictional stories on television love to use the “engineered” virus trope because it makes good drama, not because it is realistic.
Baxter: There is no evidence that the virus is intentionally created. This myth came from the fact that the Chinese virology center studying the previous dangerous coronaviruses SARS and MERS was in Wuhan, a city in China heavily hit by the initial virus. When an animal isn’t too impacted by a virus, they are a natural host to make mutations, as we’re seeing in humans who are immunocompromised giving rise to new variants. Viruses are quite capable of making themselves more adapted to spread and survive without needing humans. As habitats have grown smaller, greater mixing of animals and humans has occurred, resulting in diseases like Ebola, SARS and MERS spreading to humans. The more deadly, the more likely we can stop the spread. SARS-CoV-2 is more dangerous because it is less deadly and slower to spread.
Claim 2: The coronavirus is the missile, and “the warhead is a little protein that they tacked on that attaches to your ACE2 pathway. Human beings have these ACE2 pathways … and when you put on this hook, what they call this ‘spike protein’, then it gets into these ACE2 pathways, which now is in your heart, in your lungs, in your testicle, in your brain, it can kill you.”
Breyta: This is indeed how the virus works, it’s how many viruses work. It can indeed kill us, and it can make us sick for a long time. Viruses have been infecting animals this way for millions of years, and they change all the time – it’s up to us to change our behavior to protect ourselves. We have managed to control viruses in the past, we can do it again.
Baxter: She believes the virus was let out purposely. It’s totally true that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein attaches to ACE2 receptors, just as many viruses including flu have spike proteins. Flu has two different types (hyaluronidase and neuraminidase, from which we get the “H1N1" or “H2N4" nomenclature). What’s interesting about it is that COVID-19 seems to almost exclusively start in the nasopharynx – the sinus passages – which is why loss of smell is so common. The ACE2 receptors are only the ones on the “ciliated epithelium” or the cells with wiggly brushes that move mucous. Rather than going into the bloodstream, it slowly makes copies of itself, with one theory being that breathing the copies in large numbers into the lungs from the nose is how it spreads once it enters through the nose. While ACE2 receptors are all over the body, it seems that it takes a large number of copies of the virus, or “viral load,” to activate the spread outside the upper airway. After it’s widespread, the most deadly part of COVID-19 is the body’s immune response, causing blood clots, dysregulation of glucose and blood pressure, and of course airways that don’t transmit oxygen properly.
Claim 3: The coronavirus is a highly transmissible, very small particle virus that can’t be prevented by masks or plastic screens. In fact, masks are “damaging us in all sorts of ways.”
Breyta: The coronavirus is indeed highly transmissible by breathing in the small virus particles, and the technology to filter items of different sizes is very good – we can separate bacteria from water by straining it through fabric and preventing people from getting sick with cholera. Masks are very effective at reducing our chances of inhaling coronavirus and becoming infected. Masks themselves pose far less risk than the virus. Not liking a mask is not the same as being harmed by a mask.
Baxter: The SARS-CoV-2 virus is between 50–200 nanometers in diameter, but it rides on either respiratory droplets bigger than five microns or aerosols that hover right around that size. Surgical masks filter completely down to about five microns in size, which is why doctors go for N95 masks that are 5x better. However, even double thickness cotton has been found to significantly reduce the amount of particles breathed in. Part of why we know masks work is in places where masking goes up, hospitalizations go down and asymptomatic cases go up. The danger of SARS-CoV-2 is getting a heavy load of virus, which masks dramatically reduce. Masks aren’t damaging at all, even with asthma, as they filter oxygen not at all. Bad breath, unfortunately, can get trapped inside, but that’s about the extent of the risk.
Claim 4: “[The virus in Wuhan and Lombardy] was probably a first-generation virus, and it did kill a bunch of people initially, but just like almost all viruses, as they passed to the human host, they got weaker. This is just an adaptive advantage, if you’re the Napoleon of viruses and you want to take over the world, you don’t want to kill every host you come across, you’re not going to spread. So what you do is you become less and less deadly, more transmissible, and that’s what this has done over time.”
Baxter: This in general is true – and why SARS and MERS coronaviruses were easier to stop. However, if there were going to be mutations coming off one immediate deadly one, there should have been a bunch like we’re seeing now, whereas the genetic tracking doesn’t indicate that.
Breyta: Viruses change in all kinds of ways when they get into humans, there is no predictable pattern of weakening. Sometimes they get stronger, sometimes they get weaker, sometimes they stay the same. This coronavirus has actually stayed the same in terms of the disease it causes, but changes in the genome are happening, and we don’t know what they mean for the future. We need to stay vigilant and take precautions.
Claim 5: There have been treatments for viruses going back to the 1970s, antimicrobial agents or lysosomotropic agents (hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin). The reason these treatments have been hidden is because of the billion-dollar vaccine industry.
Breyta: Viruses are incredibly variable and drugs that work for some do not work for all. This is true for the billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry.
Baxter: This doesn’t make a lick of sense. If there were a cure for the common cold virus, someone would make billions. Pediatricians lose money on vaccines and by far the most lucrative drugs in the pharma industry are those that influence the immune system. Vaccines can be profitable, but in part because they were such money losers, many companies dropped their vaccine programs in just the time period she says. If we had a good antiviral against COVID-19, you’d have heard about it.
Claim 6: Even without doing anything, COVID-19 has a 99.991% chance of survival, as opposed to a standard flu which is 99.992%. The biggest evidence of how sick you will get from the virus is your vitamin D level. If you take vitamin D, you will be safe.
Baxter: It’s true that low vitamin D levels are correlated with worse outcomes, but the numbers for COVID-19 deaths and flu are both way out of whack. In contrast, [the US has] had 450,000 deaths from COVID-19, whereas even a bad flu season causes 50K deaths. Looked at another way, deaths from flu are about 0.2-0.5%, whereas deaths from COVID19 are 1-1.5%, not counting long-haul side effects and potential lifelong complications. For example, 19% of those who are hospitalized for COVID-19 develop diabetes, a new finding reported today. The CDC reports death rates every year from flu, this is easy to fact check.
Breyta: We know that becoming infected with COVID-19 has many negative health impacts other than death, which means that even if you survive, you could be unwell for a very long time. No one knows exactly what will predict how sick you get from COVID-19. The only way to be safe is to not get infected.
Claim 7: Vaccine makers have designed a piece of the virus’s mRNA to replicate in every cell of your body: the spike protein. That spike protein is actually creating the pathogen in your body. They first tested these types of vaccines on animals, specifically ferrets and cats. They started with other deadly coronaviruses: for SARS, they used cats, and for MERS, they used ferrets. What happened is all the animals died, but they didn’t die of the vaccine, what they died of was called immune enhancement or antibody induced enhancement or antibody dependent enhancement. When they gave cats the SARS mRNA vaccine, instead of killing the virus or weakening it, it encoded the virus on the cat’s DNA. So the virus came into the cat’s body like a Trojan horse unseen by the cat’s own immune system and then it replicated and killed the cat with overwhelming sepsis and cardiac failure. And that happened in the ferrets, that happened every time they’ve tried this, and we have never made it through an animal study successfully for this type of virus. We have never done this in humans before.
Baxter: It’s true that these are the first approved mRNA vaccines in humans, but there are many successful approved mRNA vaccines for animals. They’re newer technology (meaning 20 years instead of 100), primarily limited by instability, not danger. As far as safety, we now have over 40 million COVID-19 vaccines given in the US and the rate of severe events is 0.2%. Seven cases are still under investigation. In contrast, we have had 450,000 deaths from COVID-19, whereas even a bad flu season causes 50K deaths. These are why mRNA vaccines are exciting: they are not part of an infectious particle, they are degraded by normal cell processes, so they don’t stick around, they can go right into cells, so the dose doesn’t get attacked before it gets into cells, lowering the amount that needs to be given.
Breyta: Vaccines come in all kinds. Some are killed viruses, some are live but weakened viruses. Some vaccines are not viruses at all, but just a fragment of the virus that we know will teach our immune system to recognize the whole virus if it comes along. mRNA vaccines are this last kind of vaccine. Since some whole virus vaccines like live weakened viruses can change and grow, fragment vaccines are excellent options because they cannot change and grow.
Claim 8: This vaccine was rolled out to distribution centers before FDA approval. In Nebraska, for instance, it was in the distribution center days before the FDA even said they were going to approve it.
Baxter: No clue. The data was certainly well known to the Pfizer group prior to approval and they had been asked by the government to make doses ready to go as soon as it was approved. Certainly, no one was going to use the vaccines until they were approved, but if they already sent some out with a “do not use until” I personally don’t care. Supply chains, as we see currently, are a bitch.
[Editor’s note: PolitiFact rates Merritt’s claim false. There is no evidence Nebraska received the vaccine before FDA approval.]
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