Over the past week or so I have felt it increasingly necessary to comment on a video that has been circulating recently. At first, I hoped it would be confined to the far-right sites where it is being promoted. These past few days I have seen an uptick on social media and feel it is necessary to weigh in with a little more detail. I normally keep my comments to myself with such loaded topics but this is one where bad science is colliding with even worse politics.
The video I am speaking of is the one featuring the discredited scientist Judy Mikovits trashing Anthony Fauci, vaccines, and medical science more generally. Apparently, it is being turned into a documentary.
If you are wondering where the sentiments of this documentary lie, one only need to read this statement from the film’s website:
“Plandemic will expose the scientific and political elite who run the scam that is our global health system, while laying out a new plan; a plan that allows all of humanity to reconnect with healing forces of nature.”
“Scientific and political elite” are buzz words often used by the far right.
I will be the first to admit there are very legitimate problems with our medical system and have gained many insights from people who have devoted their careers to better understand the various perverse forces that make our nation one of the sickest in the world. As a chronically-ill patient, I have seen first-hand the many problems in medicine. But I have also benefitted tremendously from scientific research, pharmaceuticals, and skilled physicians. I also take responsibility for my own health through diet and many other healing modalities, but would never rely exclusively on these (I tried and failed).
First, a disclosure about my views on vaccines
I am resistant to even go here, but the film is wrapped up in the vaccine debate. I find that many people are very closed-minded when it comes to vaccines – it seems there are only two choices: to be an anti-vaxxer or to be someone who shuts down reasonable concerns about vaccine safety and/or efficacy. Both sides tend to be strident. I am in neither camp; I am a scientist who likes to weigh the evidence. I am far from being an anti-vaxxer (I, along with my son, are somewhat fully vaccinated) but also see that there is a grey area and that certain vaccines could be made to be safer. I also believe it is likely that some people could have genetics and immunological conditions that predispose them to adverse responses (not referring to autism here, but immune dysfunction). That does not make me an anti-vaxxer but I have friends who see red when I dare to suggest that for some people, in some cases, vaccines might not be wise. I have a neuroimmune disease (ME/CFS) and need to proceed with caution with vaccines.
Mikovits, me, and ME
Back in my days of being treated for Lyme, I decided that I needed to address the possibility of chronic viral infections. I found two doctors that I was interested in seeing – Drs. Jose Montoya and Nancy Klimas (I ended up with Montoya). At that time, it was all the rage to treat Lyme patients with antiretroviral drugs used for HIV. To that end, my Lyme doc suggested I consider working with Judy Mikovits. Fortunately, she was unresponsive, sparing me of this rabbit hole (let alone it would be illegal for her to treat patients without a medical license).
Of course, I knew Mikovits’ name because she was the lead author on a 2009 paper published in journal Science that made a big splash in the scientific community: she, along with her colleagues asserted that ME/CFS – my disease – was associated with a virus called XMRV, a mouse retrovirus. Finally! The cause of this horrid disease was discovered! As someone who was recently diagnosed with this condition and told to go home and rot (essentially), I was thrilled.
Not so fast. The paper was retracted in 2011 after the results could not be replicated by multiple labs across the US. The conclusion was that the result was caused by lab contamination – oops. Heck, even Mikovits signed on to another the paper in 2011 with a laundry list of giants in virology and ME/CFS debunking the 2009 paper.
Around the time I was considering working with Mikovits, she published a book with her co-author called Plague. I read the book, finding it a bit mystifying that someone was going to such lengths to defend an idea that was so roundly rejected.
The story goes something like this: while working on the newly-established Whittemore-Peterson Institute (WPI) at the University of Nevada Reno, it became clear there were problems with her research and she was subsequently fired for fabricating data and failing to pass on a cell line to another researcher. She packed up her notebooks and headed to southern California. She was arrested for stealing the books and put in jail. She claims the notebooks were planted – really? As if ME/CFS research triggered such a high-stakes conspiracy? Was the arrest an overreaction? Quite likely, but it certainly gave her a major ax to grind because, after all, her reputation was destroyed. The fallout was immense – Dr. Daniel Peterson, a prominent ME/CFS clinician and researcher – demanded his name be removed because he did not want it associated with shoddy science. The WPI also languished at a time when research was needed even more, just as biopsychosocial researchers in the UK were trying to pin ME/CFS on psychiatric causes. It is hard to estimate how much ground we lost between the paper being retracted and WPI losing credibility.
Jon Cohen, a respected science writer, tells the story succinctly here.
Meanwhile, “Dr. Judy” as she likes to call herself – never mind she is not an MD – must have realized that she could find a sympathetic audience with the anti-vaxx crowd (as an aside – I am deeply distrustful of anyone who insists on being called Dr. when they “only” have a PhD – it is the very embodiment of elitism and insecurity). She asserts that some vaccines are unsafe because they are contaminated with…you guessed it…XMRV, an idea that has been debunked. She joined the likes of Andrew Wakefield as a shunned scientist and became the darling of the anti-vaxx world.
OK, setting my gripes about the damage she did to ME/CFS research, I have started to see a more sinister one emerge from the backwaters of the anti-vaxx world.
It appears that she is being promoted by far-right elements. She has been embraced by strange bedfellows in addition to anti-vaxxers – tea partiers, white supremacists, conspiracy theory peddlers, those generally rebelling against the “elites”, and Trump supporters seeking to discredit Anthony Fauci and anyone critical of his response to the pandemic.
One must ask why she is trying to discredit Fauci right now? It smacks of opportunism. Clearly, Fauci is in the headlines right now, so she likely saw her moment to re-litigate past grievances from the 1980s. Interestingly, her story about Fauci and WPI have similarities: “female scientist held under the thumb of the patriarchy afraid to know the whole truth.” Hmmm…could it be she is merely a crappy scientist and when confronted she is attempting to spin a different narrative that casts her in a more beneficial light? Only in a post-truth society would someone like Mikovits rise to prominence.
Fauci, ME/CFS, and COVID-19
I also have some mixed feelings about Fauci – but for very different reasons. He has been very dismissive of ME/CFS at NIH over the years – just ask Hillary Johnson, the author of Osler’s Web. Still, I can also see that he has been trying to thread a very fine needle while serving on Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force. He is one of the only people able to provide course-corrections when Trump veers off with insane ideas regarding the virus and how to respond to it. One must ask: where would be now if Fauci weren’t by his side? I dread to think.
I like to inhabit the grey spaces and am able to hold two seemingly disparate ideas at once: anger for how Fauci treated ME/CFS and appreciation for his attempts to speak truth to power during this crisis (while still feeling he could do more). Does he get everything right? Certainly not, but he is serving in a vital role. We do not live in a black and white world.
So, for those who are feeling intrigued by her interview that is circulating, I ask you to dig a little deeper into her background before believing her story. I also ask you this: does it make sense to listen to a bitter researcher shunned by the scientific community who is being propped up by the far-right causes?
In closing, I am not trying to conflate people who have concerns about vaccines with far-right elements such as white supremacists! But I do object to using shite science to advance a cause, and even more so, to people who use misuse science to promote other causes I abhor, such as white supremacy and self-styled militias who storm democratic institutions. I am all for free speech, but not for deceptive speech.
As virologist Vincent Rancaniello once said, “trust science, not scientists.”