A person walks past a mural in New York City on May 7, 2020 (Angela Weiss / AFP)

‘Plandemic’ video peddles falsehoods about COVID-19

“Plandemic” -- a slickly-edited, 26-minute interview with a discredited researcher -- has been widely shared on social media. But the video, which YouTube and Facebook are working to remove for violating content standards, contains multiple false or misleading claims, including about the novel coronavirus, experts say.

Wearing a mask can cause harm, vaccines have “killed millions,” the novel coronavirus is not “naturally occurring,” hospitals are “incentivized” to report COVID-19 diagnoses, hydroxychloroquine is the most effective treatment for the disease, flu vaccines increase the odds of contracting it -- all are examples of false or misleading claims in the video.

The video features Dr. Judy Mikovits, who gained widespread attention in 2009 with a seemingly break-through study on chronic fatigue syndrome. But the paper was later retracted when the findings could not be replicated, and researchers theorized that the original findings were likely due to contamination.

Screenshot of a video containing multiple false or misleading claims about the novel coronavirus, taken on May 11, 2020

Mikovits’ fall from grace continued when she was briefly jailed on charges of theft from the laboratory that performed the ill-fated study. 

“Every once in a while, someone with a scientific background turns their back to logic, creates a conspiracy theory, and gains a loyal following through uncertainty,” Dr. Brandon Brown, professor at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, said of Mikovits.

Dr. Jason Newland, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said that the video “divides and polarizes our country in a time when cohesiveness, collaboration and pulling on the same rope is essential.”

“And when we're not doing that, all we're doing is making things worse,” he told AFP by phone.

Social media platforms removing the video

Social media sites, including YouTube and Facebook, are moving to take down the video.

Referring to one of its false claims, a Facebook spokesperson said by email: "Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm, so we're removing the video."

A YouTube spokesperson said when asked via email about the video: “From the very beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and are committed to continue providing timely and helpful information at this critical time.”

But despite the efforts of social media platforms, the video continues to circulate online, according to the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which focuses on identifying and exposing disinformation.

“Once Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube began proactively removing the video, users from groups like QAnon promoted it, hosting the video on alt-tech platforms that cast themselves as pro-free speech options, while continuing to share links to the video on Facebook and Twitter at a rapid rate,” DFRLab's Zarine Kharazian and Tessa Knight wrote.

This situation “demonstrates that the removal of the offending content does not prevent the spread of a conspiracy once it has gone viral.”

AFP Fact Check breaks down false and misleading claims in “Plandemic” below.

Claim: Vaccines have killed millions and there are no working vaccines for RNA viruses

Mikovits says in the video that vaccines have killed millions and that “there is no vaccine currently on the schedule for any RNA virus that works.” 

This is false. 

“We know that vaccines have saved millions, not killed millions,” Newland told AFP by phone.

University of Texas at Austin’s Dr. Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences, said by email: “This is obviously false.

“Regarding RNA viruses, influenza is an RNA virus and there is a vaccine that we take every year for it. Measles is also an RNA virus and there is a very good vaccine for it. Other RNA viruses for which there are vaccines include rabies, rubella, and mumps virus.”

Coronavirus expert Dr. Julian Leibowitz of Texas A&M College of Medicine called the claim “an outright lie.” 

“Polio vaccine has nearly eradicated paralytic polio, measles is no longer a disease that every child gets with a mortality in the US of 1 per 1000 cases, to just name two vaccine success stories. There are many more.”

Claim: The novel coronavirus is not ‘naturally occurring’

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘created,’ but you can’t say ‘naturally occurring’ if it was by way of the laboratory,” Mikovits says of the novel coronavirus’ origin. “It’s very clear this virus was manipulated... and this is what was released, whether deliberate or not.”

This is false.

“This is wrong on so many levels,” Leibowitz said. “There is NO evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is a laboratory created virus.”

Claim: US funding for China coronavirus experiments contributed to outbreak

Mikovits claims that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease -- the division of the National Institutes of Health run by Dr. Anthony Fauci -- is partially to blame for the novel coronavirus pandemic, since the agency funded coronavirus experiments in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

This is misleading.

“She states that the US was working with Wuhan to study coronaviruses years ago, like it’s a ‘gotcha’ moment: yes, of course we were doing this -- China is a coronavirus hotspot and it makes sense to study this family of viruses where it naturally occurs," Vanderbilt University pathology fellow Dr. Kathleen Montgomery said in an email.

Leibowitz said that there is no evidence that coronavirus studies in Wuhan are linked to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In response to the claim, the NIH said by email that it and the “National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are focused on critical research aimed at ending the COVID-19 pandemic and preventing further deaths. We are not engaging in tactics by some seeking to derail our efforts.”

Claim: Hospitals are incentivized to report COVID-19 diagnoses

Mikovits also claims in the video that hospitals get “$13,000 from Medicare if you call it COVID-19.”

If the patient goes on a ventilator, the hospital receives three times as much money, the video claims. Doctors are putting patients on ventilators unnecessarily, Mikovits says: “You’ve killed them with the ventilator ‘cause you gave them the wrong treatment.”

This is misleading.

“We don’t want to intubate anyone, we want everyone to get better,” said Newland. 

“There’s this suggestion that we’d rather intubate to make more money, well that’s just not how doctors work, or clinicians in general.”

Montgomery agreed. “There is no evidence to support the idea that physicians are incorrectly diagnosing COVID-19 due to financial incentive,” she said.

A spokesperson for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services confirmed that the agency implemented Section 3710 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on April 15, 2020, which increases payment for COVID-19 cases by 20 percent.

The increase “is not a bonus,” the CMS spokesperson said by email, but rather a step to protect the health of patients and providers during the outbreak.

Although Medicare would generally pay more for a patient who needed a ventilator than one who did not, “Medicare providers are required to accurately bill for services provided based on a beneficiary’s diagnosis,” the spokesperson said.

“Claims with inaccurate diagnosis... would be subject to recoupment and/or other potential civil or criminal charges for false claims.”

Claim: Hydroxychloroquine is most effective treatment for COVID-19

The video includes several false or misleading claims about hydroxychloroquine. 

The decades-old malaria drug is “working great” for COVID-19 patients, claims an unnamed man in scrubs featured in the “Plandemic” video.

This is false; a study published May 7, 2020 reported no harm or benefit to using hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients, Newland said. 

A voiceover in the video says that: “In a survey polling nearly 2,300 doctors in some 30 countries, hydroxychloroquine was ranked as the most effective medication to treat the virus.”

This is misleading.

In an April interview with “Fox and Friends”, Fauci addressed a study which found that given a list of 15 options, 37 percent of more than 6,200 doctors in 30 countries said hydroxychloroquine is the most effective treatment against the disease.

“We don’t operate on how you feel, we operate on what evidence is,” he said. “Granted that there is a suggestion of benefit there, I think we’ve gotta be careful that we don’t make that majestic leap to assume that this is a knockout drug.”

Public health authorities in multiple countries have said that clinical trials were needed to determine the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine.

Mikovits also claims in the video that the American Medical Association “was saying doctors will lose their license if they use hydroxychloroquine.” This too is false.

The only AMA guidance related to prescribing or dispensing of COVID-19 medication is a joint statement with the American Pharmacists Association and American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, available here, a spokesperson said.

The statement reads: “Novel off-label use of FDA-approved medications is a matter for the physician’s or other prescriber’s professional judgment.”

The US Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization allowing healthcare providers to prescribe hydroxychloroquine for adults unable to participate in clinical trials, along with dosage and administration guidance.

Claim: Flu vaccines increase odds of getting COVID-19

“The flu vaccines increase the odds by 36 percent of getting COVID-19,” Mikovits claims in the video, citing this study

This is false. Data for the study was gathered during the 2017-2018 flu season, before the novel coronavirus was discovered, McLellan said, “so no claims can be made about the influenza vaccines and SARS-CoV-2/COVID19.” 

The results show that a statistically significant 7.8 percent of people who got a flu shot tested positive for a coronavirus, compared to 5.8 percent of people who did not receive a flu vaccine, he said, but the data is correlative, not causative, and the coronaviruses in question are the four coronaviruses that cause the common cold, not COVID-19.

 “This is a novel virus,” Newland said. “The flu vaccine is gonna have no impact one way or the other.”

AFP Fact Check has addressed previous claims about flu vaccines here and here.

Claim: Wearing masks and gloves hurts immune system

Two doctors who gave a controversial press conference criticizing stay-at-home measures also appear in the video. One says that masks and gloves worsen the immune system, while the other says that this reduces “bacterial flora,” making you more likely to get “opportunistic infections.”

And Mikovits says that: “Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus. You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions and if it happens to be SARS-CoV-2, then you’ve got a big problem.” 

These claims are false.

Dr. Shelley Payne, director of the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an email that “there is no evidence that masks or gloves reduce the normal microbiota or predispose people to opportunistic infections.” 

While the presence of the microbiota is important to development of the immune system early in life, and it does indeed provide protection against some opportunistic pathogens, “the microbiota does not disappear when gloves or a mask is worn, and it is not necessary to be exposed to additional microbes in the environment to maintain the microbiota.”

Leibowitz said he knows of no data that suggests masks weaken the immune system. “In fact in terms of opportunistic infections I think that they would decrease your risk of infection.”  

Payne added that wearing a mask will not reactivate your own virus -- the cloth just filters out particles from the air.

AFP Fact Check has previously written about claims on mask effectiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic here.

Claim: Closing beaches blocks access to healing microbes in ocean, sand

“Why would you close the beach?” Mikovits asks near the end of the video, referring to social distancing measures taken by US states to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. “You’ve got sequences in the soil, in the sand, you’ve got healing microbes in the ocean, in the salt water. That’s insanity.”

This is misleading.

Beaches were closed to promote social distancing and prevent hospital intensive care units from being overwhelmed, and so far the measures have worked, Newland said. “If we have a bunch of people on top of each other on these local beaches, the risk is having that large amount of people potentially getting sick.” 

Leibowitz said that “although it is true that antibiotic secreting species can be recovered from soil, recovering these bacteria is not easy,” noting that the ocean also contains species associated with “flesh eating infections.” 

As long as people maintain adequate social distancing on the beach, he continued, “beaches would be as safe or dangerous as they were before COVID-19.” 

And Newland said that while the beach might have some healing nature just because it makes people happy, “now isn’t the time.”

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 430 examples of false or misleading information about the novel coronavirus crisis. A complete list of our fact checks on the topic in English can be found here.

UPDATE: This article was updated on May 18, 2020 at the request of Dr. Jason McLellan to amend
a comment he made about a flu vaccine study.