As if the last couple of weeks couldn’t get any more frustrating, imagine my reaction when I came across this story bubbling up on social media late yesterday morning, courtesy of The Washington Post about grifting antivaxxers taking advantage of the flaws in the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP):
Five prominent anti-vaccine organizations that have been known to spread misleading information about the coronavirus received more than $850,000 in loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, raising questions about why the government is giving money to groups actively opposing its agenda and seeking to undermine public health during a critical period.
The groups that received the loans are the National Vaccine Information Center, Mercola Health Resources, the Informed Consent Action Network, the Children’s Health Defense and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an advocacy group based in the United Kingdom that fights misinformation and conducted the research using public documents. The group relied on data released in early December by the Small Business Administration in response to a lawsuit from The Washington Post and other news organizations.
Just look at that list! I’ve written about every single one of those groups before multiple times. In fact, as I write about each one, I think I’ll include a link to the relevant tag, so that you can simply click on the link and be taken to every post in the last few years that I’ve done, so that you can see for yourself (although that won’t stop me from highlighting a specific previous post when appropriate).
Let’s start with Joe Mercola, a physician and über-quack about whom I’ve spilled a considerable amount of digital ink dissecting his quackery and antivaccine stylings. Most recently, Mercola (I refuse to call him “doctor”) was promoting a favorite conspiracy theory COVID-19 deniers, that of the “casedemic,” a conspiracy theory that claims that the COVID-19 pandemic is not real, but rather a “casedemic” caused by false positive PCR tests that are false positives because the threshold count for a “positive” test was set too high, allowing the nonspecific amplification of RNA sequences not related to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It is a conspiracy theory based on a complete and utter lack of understanding of how PCR works.
Then there’s the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), headed up by a woman whom I like to call the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, given that she first became active in the 1980s and is one of the longest active antivaccine activists out there, Barbara Loe Fisher. (Gary Null might be the only one who’s been at it longer.) In fact, Mercola and Fisher have a longstanding…business…relationship, in which Mercola has been making large donations to the NVIC for over a decade now.
As for the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), what do I need to say, other than that it is headed up by former producer for the TV show The Doctors turned antivax propaganda filmmaker, Del Bigtree, the man who with antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield made the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as as documentary VAXXED? This is a man who is so rabidly antivaccine that he’s bragged about being willing to die for his cause, although I’m (pretty) sure that it’s all just overdramatic posturing to impress his gullible admirers in the antivaccine movement. On the other hand, he isn’t above playing fast and loose with violent rhetoric about guns that could easily encourage violence among his listeners, even as he does it with plausible deniability. Let me just repeat a quote by Bigtree:
…but now we’re watching the most powerful lobby in the country and in the world poisoning our children. And our government is helping them. What are we going to do about it? We have the power. But we have got to stop being afraid to talk about it. If you’re afraid to talk about it, your Twitters, your Facebooks, I don’t want to bring it up at my PTA meeting, I don’t want to at lunch or at Thanksgiving dinner, then I can imagine those same conversations were happening in Nazi Germany among the Jewish people. Let’s not talk about it. I don’t want to bring it into my reality. It’s still 20 miles away. I’m still allowed in this theater, not that one. All I have to get is this little star. All I have to do is to sign this little thing saying that I’m not going to vaccinate because I think they’re dangerous—and they are dangerous. I’m just going to sign this paper. I’m going to let them put me in a log. At some point, they have gone too far.
Do you think it’s a good idea to let the government own your baby’s body and right behind it your body? That is the end for me. Anyone who believes in the right to bear arms. To stand up against your government. I don’t know what you were saving that gun for then. I don’t know when you planned on using it if they were going to take control of your own body away.
It’s now. Now’s the time.”
I note that Bigtree said this in 2016, three and a half years before the COVID-19 pandemic started. These days, he’s blaming people who become deathly ill with COVID-19 as having brought it on themselves through their own lifestyle choices. Basically, Bigtree is as big a threat to public health as any antivaxxer I can think of.
This brings us to Children’s Health Defense. This is, as regular readers will recall, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.‘s antivaccine organization. As I mentioned recently, his original antivaccine organization World Mercury Project was renamed Children’s Health Defense after it had become very clear nearly two decades after thimerosal was removed from vaccines that autism rates were not falling (quite the contrary, in fact), thus showing no association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. Along the way, his claims to be “fiercely pro-vaccine” notwithstanding, RFK Jr. demonstrated himself to be, in reality, fiercely antivaccine, whether he was likening vaccination to the Holocaust, trying to persuade Samoan officials that the MMR vaccine was dangerous (in the middle of a deadly measles outbreak!), claiming that today’s generation of children is the “sickest generation” (due to vaccines, of course!), or toadying up to President-Elect Donald Trump during the transition period to be chair of a “vaccine safety commission.” Indeed, last year his own family called him out for his antivaccine activism, while, predictably, RFK Jr. has, as so many antivaxxers have done, gone all-in on COVID-19 pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and become antimask, “anti-lockdown,” and pro-quack treatments.
Finally, there’s Sherri Tenpenny. She’s another antivaccine physician, a category of physician for whom I have nothing but contempt, particularly given that she’s at least as antivaccine as the previous four recipients of government largesse, although I haven’t written about her as much as I have the others. When last we left her, she was desperately trying to deny that measles can kill because if it can’t kill then the vaccine isn’t necessary. Typical of antivaccine activists, she was doing it in the middle of the measles outbreak in Samoa in 2019 that killed so many children. In that, however, she was only following the trail blazed by RFK Jr.
Great recipients for so much money, right?
So who got how much? The lion’s share in the form of the largest Paycheck Protection Program loan ($335,000) went to Joe Mercola’s organization, while poor Tenpenny only got $72,000, the smallest loan. The amounts of the other loans were not disclosed, but obviously they must range between those two sums, which is a lot of money given their size.
Unfortunately, according to the story, these loans were almost certainly legal. The federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is a government program passed into law as part of the CARES Act last spring during the first surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was designed to help small businesses keep paying their employees during stay-at-home orders that might have forced those businesses to close temporarily. According to the Treasury:
The Paycheck Protection Program established by the CARES Act, is implemented by the Small Business Administration with support from the Department of the Treasury. This program provides small businesses with funds to pay up to 8 weeks of payroll costs including benefits. Funds can also be used to pay interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities.
The Paycheck Protection Program prioritizes millions of Americans employed by small businesses by authorizing up to $659 billion toward job retention and certain other expenses.
Small businesses and eligible nonprofit organizations, Veterans organizations, and Tribal businesses described in the Small Business Act, as well as individuals who are self-employed or are independent contractors, are eligible if they also meet program size standards.
Moreover, the antivaccine organizations probably did qualify for the funding they received under the PPP, as The Washington Post points out:
It’s unclear whether the SBA will take issue with anti-vaccination groups receiving PPP funding.
Carol Wilkerson, a spokeswoman for the SBA, declined to comment on whether the anti-vaccine organizations were legally eligible for the loans they received. She added that the agency is reviewing loan forgiveness applications to ensure compliance with the rules, and that the next round of PPP funding will include more vetting on the front end before an organization receives a loan.
She suggested that the organizations in question probably did meet the requirements; the PPP program was open to a wide range of businesses and nonprofit groups.
“In general, if PPP applicants [or] borrowers met the requirements, they got a loan,” Wilkerson said.
That part about loan forgiveness is, as I understand, a part of the program in which the loans will be forgiven if the businesses receiving the loans don’t lay off workers. The way the program was set up is also problematic. As reported in the Post, the PPP allows businesses to “self-certify their eligibility for a taxpayer-backed loan,” and the SBA “does not hand out the loans itself” but rather, “empowers a network of approved lenders to quickly process them on its behalf.”
Imagine that! No wonder grifters like Joe Mercola, Del Bigtree, Barbara Loe Fisher, Sherri Tenpenny, and RFK Jr. were all over the Paycheck Protection Program, with RFK Jr. oh-so-piously defending himself thusly:
In an interview, Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the nephew of former president John F. Kennedy, said his organization is “scrupulous about obeying the law” and questioned whether there is any law or regulation that would prevent his organization from receiving federal help.
“I’ve never heard anybody say that a loan is only available to people who don’t question the government,” Kennedy said.
Unfortunately, RFK Jr. is probably correct that there aren’t any federal laws or regulations that would prevent Children’s Health Defense from receiving federal funds under the program. That’s what happens when a law is written so broadly. I can even understand why the law was written that way. Things were shutting down in response to the pandemic, resulting in enormous numbers of workers losing their jobs. The program had to be very broad. On the other hand, the smugness of RFK Jr.’s portraying what he is doing as just “questioning the government” is truly cringe- and anger-inducing. While we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic whose death toll in this country alone is fast approaching 400,000 and very likely to surpass a half a million by the end of February, RFK Jr. is actively promoting not just antivaccine disinformation but COVID-19 denial as well. His message and the activities of Children’s Health Defense were always threats to public health, but their potential to promote mass death by promoting resistance to public health interventions were turbocharged by the pandemic.
As others have pointed out, it’s also ironic how, with the exception of RFK Jr. (who is left wing), many of these antivaccine groups have aligned themselves with libertarian anti-government groups, as well as right wing conspiracy theorists and QAnon. Yet here they are, feeding off the government trough.
Grifters gonna grift, I guess, but that doesn’t mean the government had to make it so easy for them, even in the midst of a deadly pandemic. With President-Elect Biden about to take office tomorrow and planning on passing a massive $1.9 trillion economic rescue package, I really hope that the bill’s sponsors have learned from the shortcomings of the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program.
Otherwise, antivax grifters gonna grift some more in 2021.