The anti-vaxx agenda of 'Plandemic'

A clip of this disingenuous documentary is making the rounds.

The anti-vaxx agenda of 'Plandemic'

In this picture taken on April 29, 2020, an engineer shows an experimental vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus that was tested at the Quality Control Laboratory at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing.

Photo by Nicolas Asfouri / AFP
  • A new documentary, "Plandemic," states that it is uncovering a global cabal trying to implement forced vaccinations.
  • The first clip's interview subject, Judy Mikovits, is a known anti-vaxxer.
  • This agenda-based film features contradictory evidence and false claims while being championed as a beacon of truth.

In 1990, American attorney Mike Godwin coined "Godwin's law," which states that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." When Nazis are invoked the debate is over. Godwin has made some exceptions, such as the Trump administration's implementation of refugee detention centers being compared to concentration camps. In general, little actually lives up to the horrors of the Holocaust, though anyone without credible evidence trying to win a debate foolishly invokes Hitler.

Cue COVID-19.

Over the past two days my social media feed has been dominated by a clip from the forthcoming documentary, "Plandemic." It only takes until the third paragraph of the film's description to discover that the current forced global vaccination program is rooted in Hitler's Germany. A few sentences later we "flash forward to 2020" to find out the "masters of the Pandemic" are finally finishing the job—on us.

Said clip features former researcher Judy Mikovits, who has become a minor celebrity on the anti-vaxx circuit. Her interview doubles as a promotion for her latest book, which is based on an ongoing war she's waging with Dr. Anthony Fauci. Her Twitter feed is filled with anti-Fauci rhetoric alongside glee that Donald Trump is now listening to her. She has explicitly called for the entire leadership of the COVID-19 response team to be fired.

Mikovits' story is not unlike Andrew Wakefield's, the discredited British physician who was paid to invent the vaccine-autism "conspiracy." In 2011, Mikovits attempted to link a newly discovered retrovirus to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, only to partially retract the paper after the study could not be replicated. The journal, Science, later fully retracted Mikovits' paper, just as The Lancet had done with Wakefield's research (which also could not be replicated). In 2017, Mikovits published a book on retroviruses and...autism.

(Interestingly, in "Plandemic," Mikovits wants to end the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows federal funding recipients to file patents on inventions they've created. She cites a conflict of interest regarding Fauci. There is no mention of Wakefield's filing a patent for a measles vaccine while he was trying to discredit existing vaccines.)

As I wrote about last week, we've entered a strange territory where the far Left and far Right are converging. Truth is colliding with truthiness. "Plandemic" is based on a serious problem in our market-based system: pharmaceutical companies taking advantage of for-profit health care. We also, as Mikovits recommends, need to take care of our immune system. But to claim that we don't need a vaccine because our immune system will take care of us overlooks people born with pre-existing conditions, as well as the fact that this virus is unpredictable. Her "contrarian" attitude sells books and get clicks. What it doesn't do is help our situation. Contrary to the film's stated goal of waking people up, it accomplishes the opposite: by spreading misinformation, it's making people more fearful and ignorant of the scientific process.

The overall premise is true: Big Pharma is one of modernity's most lucrative industries. Billions are made on our suffering. For example, I've spent the last six months researching the chemical imbalance theory of mental health, which, beginning in the fifties through the present day, has been one of health care's greatest failures. There are real conspiracies that need to be addressed, such as this administration's complete failure to test Americans. But instead of putting our time and energy into, say, voting, we spin our wheels over invented conspiracies that are only furthering fear and confusion.

Below are seven instances that display how conspiracy theories are baked into "Plandemic." To borrow from Mike Godwin, perhaps Beres' law is number eight: "As an online discussion about vaccines grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Bill Gates approaches 1." Because obviously, he's in there too.

1. Anti-vaccination agenda

The film opens with Mikovits' new book, Plague of Corruption, published by Skyhorse Publishing. This house has skin in the anti-vaxx game. The house's founder and publisher, Tony Lyons, said in 2014 that "my main focus in the publishing field has become books about autism and the connection between autism and vaccines." Skyhorse has published two of discredited physician Andrew Wakefield's anti-vaxx books. (Note: my last book was published by Carrel, a division of Skyhorse. I was not aware of the anti-vaxx connection until after it was published.) Mikovits' co-author, Kent Heckenlively, is a known anti-vaxxer and a founding editor of the anti-vaxx website, Age of Autism. The book's foreword was written by Robert F. Kennedy, a leader in the anti-vaxx movement. So when Mikovits states in "Plandemic" that she takes no issue with vaccinations, she sure hangs around plenty of people that do.

2. The flu vaccine linked to coronavirus

Mikovits links COVID-19 with the flu vaccine based on a January 2020 study of Department of Defense personnel. Indeed, getting the flu vaccine appeared to result in an increased risk of being infected with a coronavirus. The problem: the coronavirus studied was the common cold, not COVID-19. This study was also based on one flu season. A previous, larger study covering six flu seasons found no such association. In the film you're led to believe that getting a flu vaccine increases your risk of getting COVID-19. There's no evidence of that.

3. The ongoing debate over hydroxychloroquine

Mikovits expresses consternation that the anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, is not being used more. She states that it's been on the WHO Model Lists of Essential Medicines for 70 years. Almost: it was approved for medical use in America in 1955. While it has been successfully used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, evidence of its efficacy in treating COVID-19 is conflicting. This does not mean that it might not work in combination with other drugs. The way the film is edited, however, makes it appear that Fauci is stating that evidence of hydroxychloroquine's efficacy is anecdotal in regards to any usage. His clip, specific to COVID-19, is right after Mikovits' citation of the WHO list. In this case, Fauci is right: evidence of hydroxychloroquine's efficacy in treating COVID-19 is, to date, anecdotal. The film then flashes to a doctor berating Fauci's assessment. He then angrily asks Fauci if he's going to clinically test a vaccine. Considering over 70 are in various phases of clinical trials around the world, the answer is likely yes, but the film makes it seem the opposite.

4. The Bakersfield doctors

Here they are again. Dr. Dan Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi, the team that runs an urgent care center in Bakersfield, were forceful in their assessment that sheltering in place is nonsense. Their videos were taken off of social media for spreading misinformation, yet that makes perfect fodder for "Plandemic." To be fair, in one clip they make a good point: humans needs to be exposed to bacteria. Our immune systems require exposure. In normal times, we've gone overboard with antibacterial soap. Kids need dirt.

The problem is that this point is conflated with sheltering at home. What we're avoiding is not bacteria, but overwhelming our health care system. Sure, a large percentage of those infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. Doctors are still trying to understand why that is. We're protecting vulnerable populations whose immune systems cannot handle it as well as doctors and nurses. The film's editing is disingenuous. It makes it appear that if we only got a little COVID, we'd all be alright. The debate over herd immunity is a separate conversation. The short-term solution is sheltering at home. It's not about taking away our freedom. It's buying researchers and hospitals time. These doctors should know better.

Judy Mikovits in "The Plandemic."

5. Shady montage

The film claims that we're being driven to hate one another by our media outlets. That is a debatable but important point. Social media is certainly polarizing. We know that. This claim is made over a montage featuring Alex Jones (who recently contemplated cannibalism) and Sean Hannity (a leading voice for the sheltering at home protest movement) alongside comedians Trevor Noah and John Oliver. Sure, the latter are politically liberal. But since when is cannibalism a conservative principle? This montage makes you feel as if all media is flawed. The implication is that you can only turn to films like "Plandemic" for the truth. In criticizing the "us versus them" mentality, the filmmakers are trying to win viewers over to "their" side.

6. Cult dog whistling

The company behind this film made its mark by distributing and marketing the documentary that led to the book, "The Secret." Barbara Ehrenreich said it best when stating that the self-help techniques inside this book—"ask, believe, receive"—promotes a failure to engage with reality while promoting political complacency. The author, Rhonda Byrne, tows a very old myth: You're the only reason that you're in the shape you're in. If you're having problems, that's on you. You're not asking hard enough. "Plandemic" relies on a tried and tested cult technique: the world is toxic, but we have the answers. This is indicated when Mikovits says, "Hopefully this is the wake-up call for all America to realize this makes no sense and we win because it will take down this whole program." You're either with us or against us. The same mostly white and affluent demographic targeted by Byrne makes up a large portion of the anti-vaccination movement. Magical thinking is easy when you're not poor or oppressed.

7. Surprise outbreak

The clip ends with Fauci speaking at a 2017 commencement address. He states there is no doubt there will be a surprise outbreak due to a pandemic. This theatrical ending implies that he's been in on this the whole time (wink, wink). But let's consider a 2007 review by a team of scientists in Hong Kong:

"Coronaviruses are well known to undergo genetic recombination, which may lead to new genotypes and outbreaks. The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored."

Obama warned of a potential pandemic too. In fact, a lot of researchers have been sounding the alarm. This Larry Brilliant interview from 2017 is rather timely today. That does not fit the anti-Fauci rhetoric Mikovits is banking her career on, however. Every agenda has a target. While "Plandemic" says the goal is our freedom, the reality is anything but.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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Sex & Relationships
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