Antivaccine nonsense Medicine Politics Skepticism/critical thinking

Antivaccine organizations got $850,000 in COVID-19 bailout money from the Paycheck Protection Program

The Washington Post reported yesterday that antivaccine groups got $850,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program under the CARES Act. How could this happen?

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.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

41 replies on “Antivaccine organizations got $850,000 in COVID-19 bailout money from the Paycheck Protection Program”

Individual mega-churches recieved millions each also. I think it is talk-radio driving it. Essential workers, and all. I’ve spent several weeks with a gimick windup radio but it has excellent sensitivity and selectivity. I’ve scanned the dial late at night {long-distance reception is much greater than I ever remembered} and the whole thing is flooded with this crap. The whole AM dial is right-wing stolen election, or BLM burned down cites, or we sell these supplements. This is not even short wave; I found no ‘liberal voice’. Those people must get millions to give their ‘voice’ millions, I think.

Chicago, New York, Oregon, Misery, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, China*??

*the China is new to me.. I can’t grok what that ching chang ching is saying, but that ‘bzzzz’ in their transmission tells me they are really pumping out the watts and stressing whatever generator they call a power supply. Interestingly enough, It does not matter whether I orient the ferrite rod poleward or eastward.


You forgot to mention The Ayn Rand Institute took PPP money…….

Yes, when Ayn Rand said taking government handouts is immoral and bad, bad, bad.

Talk about not living your creed, but then Ayn Rand took Social Security when it was available, too.

Say one thing and do the other. Typical liars and conmen.

And do not forget Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, they took their share of the PPP, too. But I expect it of the trumps, The Donald’s father made his money in real estate from government loan programs for housing. This family has been taking government program money for thrsee generations already.

The one I could not really understand is Jeff Koons, a super rich artist, got $1 million to $2 million. Who is he paying wages to? Has he artists on his payroll that do his sculptures for him? You know, the stainless still balloon dogs, inflatable vinyl sculptures, etc. That is supposed to be art. Reminds me of the Campbell Soup cans, they were not art either.

Maybe the institute will use the money to clean up after these stinkers:

Atlas Shrugged: I, II, and III

Muh legacy!

I can’t believe I drove around with Ron Paul R3volution painted on the back of the truck (to be fair, I also later ammended “and fuck Rand Paul” but that quickly got painted over by some vandal). I guess I didn’t know anything about him except his aversion to drug war and border walls.

If I have a kid when I’m 80 I’ll probably also give him a cool name like Usul or, at least, Herbert.

Most major artists employ people in their studio to do work associated with making art. Those giants casts are not a one-person operation. IT probably takes a skilled team to make one giant balloon dog.
This is the way that most artists have worked through history. The great masters of the Renaissance employed plenty of apprentices and journymen to do the “easy” parts of paintings; the master did the hard bits, but there’s no reason to waste Michelangelo’s time having him gesso his canvas (or whatever prep work there was for whatever surface he was painting on).

It sure makes more sense than paying the LA Lakers.

long-distance reception is much greater than I ever remembered

It’s only about a month past solar minimum.

Good point. But what about Atlanta? they are too close for a first refraction ‘skip’ and yet they were booming in to. It wasn’t ‘wavering’ either. I don’t see how any kind of atmospheric ducting or Lloyd’s mirror effect @ ~800kHz would allow that. I’m just a novice, but it is weird to me.

We live tucked right next to high tension power lines where I can take an 8-foot fluorescent tube, strike it by lifting it into the air, and it stays ‘struck’ all the way to the back porch and a quarter up the driveway. These stations are coming in clear like the local one in daytime that is 4 miles up the road! No 60 Hz noise. Hell, the most noise is from the switching wall-wart I dug up (the radio has 3-12v ac/dc input). It’s actually quieter with the windup though there is the pulse-pulse shot noise of the ‘generator’*

*this is one of the originals without an internal battery — It regulates itself by what I can only call “dynamic braking”; that is, the capacitors fill up and the motor stops by back emf, or something. Apparently, this was a patent and all the later knockoffs have a battery and this self-regulated unwinding of the constant-velocity spring does not occur.

Hey Tim, if your signal is that good you should get a HAM license and call up to the International Space Station (yes this is 100% real, and yes, the astronauts do sometimes respond).
There’s even a thing in HAM about contacting people really, really far away. Like, Pitcairn Island far away.

I think I figured the impossible Atlanta out. They must be running a repeator up on the mountains. Must be. I Have not written the numbers down but they only announce as such and such FM. Yes; there are mountains between here and there; Would you believe there is a ski resort in Alabamalam? Mentone.

“There’s even a thing in HAM about contacting people really, really far away.”

Have done it on ~27 mHz, 4 watts; other than that, like birds, Contact isn’t real.

But, yes. Licenses are important. I would never warm up a Viking Challenger or pipe a BladeRF SDR through a linear amplifier without one. Never, ever. Nope, not me; it was that other guy over there.. He was there a minute ago, I promise.

Oh the irony that all these deniers/minimizers of COVID-19 took $$$ in the name of “keeping employees at home”. Why would these 5 groups keep any of their employees at home during the “Plandemic”? If anything, all 5 groups have been hauling in big bucks during the pandemic, stirring the pot for donations from their ignorant followers. And it’s not like any of these 5 groups provide a valuable service or manufacture a product.

I know pediatric practices who almost went under in the first few months because (1) they couldn’t get a PPP loan, and (2) families stayed home from going to the pediatrician for visit. Meanwhile these vile promoters of death got PPP loans. Horrible.

Grifters gonna grift, I guess, but that doesn’t mean the government had to make it so easy for them

It’s actually an interesting question, ethic-wise.
These… businesses have to pay their employees, subcontractors and other dependents. From this angle, if they fill the prerequisites, then they are entitled to this bailout money, as much as the Taco truck owner at the street’s corner, regardless of the opinion they are in the business to advertise. Free speech, free trade and all that.
Even if they are contradicting themselves.

No; I’m not being sarcastic. Well, maybe a little. But I’m really trying to figure out if keeping these people out of bailout is doable, in a country with free speech safeguards. I guess it all comes down to the legality of these organisations’ activities. And the criteria put in place as to which businesses were deemed eligible, of course.

That being said, if my hypothetical Taco truck owner didn’t get any bailout money, while filling the same prerequisites as any of these organisations, then there is a different question to ask. Why the preference? Or, as Orac put it, why make it so easy for them?

$850,000 of Covid-bailout money to anti-vaccine groups? In comparison to the billions that the Government has given pharma during Covid, that hardly amounts to tip money!

Pharmaceutical companies gave us a vaccines. Jerks like you and those 5 anti-vax groups give us more COVID-19 cases, suffering and death.

Pharmacy companies gave us a vaccines.

Christopher, I am an antivaxxer; for christ sake, what the hell do you want me to do with that?!

I know pediatric practices who almost went under in the first few months because (1) they couldn’t get a PPP loan, and (2) families stayed home from going to the pediatrician for visit

I actually agree with you here. Given the ‘unexpected’ surprise of lower children mortality during Covid, the Government should give you guys money while your businesses are essentially closed. Even after Covid, if it means keeping your businesses closed, I feel the payments should continue.

@ Greg

“Christopher, I am an antivaxxer; for christ sake, what the hell do you want me to do with that?!”

Let me see… rectal insertion?

@Greg: “Christopher, I am an antivaxxer; for christ sake, what the hell do you want me to do with that?!”

Go away?

In comparison to the billions that the Government [sic] has given pharma during Covid, that hardly amounts to tip money!

Something tells me you’re a shitty tipper, Gerg.

But wait–there’s more. I saw Sayer Ji and Kelly Brogan got money too. Germ theory deniers. The head-asploding irony, right? I looked for Wakefield, but I don’t know what his current company is called. I’m sure there’s more in there.

I don’t imagine it was illegal to take the cash. I expect grifters to grift when they can. But it’s hard to imagine that they have the same barriers to work during the pandemic that those poor pizza shops faced. In fact, these cranks probably made more money during the pandemic from their supplements and streaming.

I responded under your tweet about this piece so you can see the Greenmedinfo and Brogan money. But also the tweet below that has the searchable database if you want to look for others.

I was afraid if I added links here I’d go to mod hell.

Wakefield used to be somehow associated with Autism File Magazine, which is a “charity” ( see website).. Now, he has Elle MacPherson so….

At any rate, I’ve always been amazed how grifters manage to set up legal charities ( AoA, Natural News/ Consumer Wellness, TMR, CHD, ICAN, NVIC, PRN/ Null have several; see websites’ Donate buttons) :
exactly what services do they provide?
“Informational/ educational”? “Health services”? “Direct aid to the disadvantaged”
Usually, charities pay those who run them ( BLF, Kim Rossi, chief woo-meisters)

Is the government helping spread misinformation about health by sheltering the income of those who create and disseminate it? Is providing misinformation a valid calling?
Why not pay amateur science fiction writers- at least some of the product might be entertaining without causing harm?

@ Denice Walter

“Is the government helping spread misinformation about health by sheltering the income of those who create and disseminate it? Is providing misinformation a valid calling? Why not pay amateur science fiction writers- at least some of the product might be entertaining without causing harm?”

Very good question: to me, that illustrates the confusion in our modern societies between tolerance and leniency. In France, the government tried to create a House of Science. Government-funded to provide scientific talking points to journalists. That approach is bound to backfire. Charities or similar institutions are IMO the only way to go. Which also means that we should fight back against this kind of leniency you’re pinpointing so that just not anything goes…

What James Randi did was a good idea: delegate the debunking to magicians, wizards, and like-minded people. If it’s not grass-roots and not popular, it cannot match the appeal of the QAnon crowds. People will indefinitely be wary of science advocates wearing ties funded by industry. We need lay people to coalesce: that alone cuts through the conspiracy theory argument.

Can we all agree that Pharma are a bunch of money grabbing bastards in a cut-throat environment who just happen to fill a crucial need in society?

Unlike the big anti-vax organisations who are a bunch of money grabbing bastards actively hoping to kill people in the name of a conspiracy theory?

Can we all agree that Pharma are a bunch of money grabbing bastards in a cut-throat environment who just happen to fill a crucial need in society

Add, ‘but they can also cause a lot of harm that you often wonder if there is really any net gain’, and I am also good.

Hmmm. Well you could run a thought experiment. What happens if every pharmaceutical product vanishes tomorrow? Never to return. No antibiotics or paracetamol or epipens or anything ever developed by pharmaceutical companies. Basically, every pharmacy and supermarket medicine shelf completely empty.

Then you can decide if you think that there is a net gain.

yr fucked, DB. I’ve seen his parleys. That daug hunts.

{I’m not linking the direct posts because it could be seen as stoking unrest. (not really, I’m not linking them because they are spooled up in an 80 Tb dump)}

From the Daily Beast:

“Gold and Strand (“America’s Frontline Doctors” communications director) are also in a Getty video with a large crowd “attempting to push past multiple officers blocking the entrance to the Capitol, which had visibly broken windows at the time,” the complaint says, adding, “One of the officers, who had been pinned near the doors to the Capitol, appears to be pulled down by someone in the crowd and lands near” the pair.”

Simone Gold says what she witnessed was “incredibly peaceful”. If that’s “peaceful”, one can only imagine how chaotic life must be in the Gold household.

Oh, and Gold has been identified as receiving over $150,000 in Covid bailout loans (see article in The Intercept).

I have asked people to stop saying negative things about me. I have hired Lin Wood to put a stop to people saying negative things about me. We and my legal team will be Krakkun’ heads of people who say negative things about me.

mister, you don’t want tobe served by us does you? shut up if you nogh what is good.

Welcome to the Internet, where people say negative things all the time!
It’s cute that you think you can somehow sue the world into not saying negative things about it. Completely, totally and utterly impossible, but cute.

JustaTech, something about this post indicates to me it is a joke.

Might be the reference to L Lin Wood, might be the Kraken reference, might be the phraseology, not sure. But my spidery senses are tingling…

Chris, you’re probably right, but these days it’s so hard to tell. Poor Poe’s law, it’s had to go on bedrest.
So many loud people on the internet are just so disconnected from reality right now it’s almost not worth trying to tell them from people who think they’re funny.

I think Klugman is different from Gold.

Now if could find a Randall, we’d have a really odd couple.

Comments are closed.


Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading