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The COVID vaccine deniers and QAnon believers coming to speak at the Arizona legislature

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The COVID vaccine deniers and QAnon believers coming to speak at the Arizona legislature

May 23, 2023 | 10:04 am ET
By Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
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The COVID vaccine deniers and QAnon believers coming to speak at the Arizona legislature
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A QAnon supporter at an April 19, 2020, protest against COVID-19 restrictions at the Arizona Capitol. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

A special committee created by the Arizona legislature to examine the state’s response to COVID-19 will feature a litany of speakers who have spread disinformation about the pandemic, vaccines, spoken at QAnon events and have conspiratorial beliefs about the virus, including believing it will usher in the “mark of the beast.” 

And the two-day hearing is being promoted by QAnon-friendly groups with an acronym that has significance in the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The “Novel Coronavirus Southwestern Intergovernmental Committee” will hold two days of hearings on May 25 and May 26 at the Arizona Capitol, during which a string of ostensible experts will tell the state and federal Republican lawmakers on the panel their opinions on the pandemic, and Arizona’s response to it. 

The Republican elected officials on the panel include state Sens. T.J. Shope and Janae Shamp, the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee; state Rep. Steve Montenegro, who chairs the state House of Representatives’ Health and Human Services Committee; and U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs, Eli Crane and Paul Gosar.

Extremist researchers on Twitter were quick to note that the various groups sponsoring the committee had begun promoting it by the acronym, NCSWIC, which is commonly used within the QAnon community to  stand for “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming.” It most often refers to an unfounded belief that “Deep State” collaborators will soon be arrested. 

Although the official name of the panel spells the word “southwestern” correctly, the committee’s outside boosters intentionally divided the word into “south western” in order to use the acronym in their promotion.

Flyers promoting the committee created by the QAnon-friendly groups involved in the event feature the acronym prominently, but do not include the actual name of the committee. 

Acronyms are popular among the QAnon community, and the most well known is WWG1WGA, meaning “Where We Go One, We Go All,” a phrase used as a rallying cry among the “digital soldiers” of the QAnon community. Disgraced former Gen. Michael Flynn was seen wearing a WWG1WGA bracelet in the conspiracy theory film “The Deep Rig,” which was filmed in part at the Arizona Senate’s partisan 2020 election “audit”  in Maricopa County. 

Flynn is connected to the committee through The America Project, which is partially funding the event and promoting it heavily. Montenegro, the Goodyear Republican who will be on the committee, is the group’s national policy director.

Former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, who heads The America Project, has been a leading voice in 2020 election fraud claims and has railed against the so-called Deep State. Byrne was also an attendee of an hour-long meeting at the White House during the final days of Trump’s presidency in which he, former Trump attorney Sidney Powell and Flynn urged the president to overturn the election.   

The America Project has a history of promoting QAnon-related content, and it is helping pay for the travel of the speakers, many of whom have their own links to the QAnon conspiracy theory. 

The appeal to QAnon isn’t surprising to Mike Rothschild, a journalist who has written extensively about QAnon.

“This kind of signaling isn’t new, but it’s usually seen in the social media of conspiracy promoters who want to entice Q believers without actually saying they believe in QAnon,” Rothschild told the Arizona Mirror. “The acronym NCSWIC has no other use beyond QAnon, and any Q believer would clearly see it for what it is.”

Rothschild said that it is a signal to the “believers and Q acolytes that these are their people,” and the makeup of the event and the people putting it on seems to demonstrate the same. 

“A huge part of Q is made up of COVID- and vaccine denial, and the use of that term tells you everything you need to know about who these people are trying to appeal to, and what they’ll be saying,” Rothschild said. 

That the hearing is an official legislative activity lends it the imprimatur of legitimacy, which is hugely important in QAnon and other conspiracy communities.

“These meetings are hugely helpful to these groups,” Rothschild said. “They offer a microphone and guaranteed time to cranks, conspiracy theorists, and extremists to push their talking points and ‘just ask questions,’ and, if they’re lucky, one of their especially outlandish answers will go viral and get shared by liberals looking to dunk on it.” 

Requests for comment to Montenegro, Shamp and Shope were not returned. Kim Quintero, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Senate Republican caucus, refused to answer questions from the Mirror and referred to a comment she sent to The Arizona Republic, which she posted on Twitter.

“Is this a serious media inquiry? If so, you are absolutely ridiculous,” the statement said.

The speakers at the two-day hearing have no shortage of conspiratorial beliefs about the pandemic. The speaker list has been changing since it was officially announced: Of the 11 initially listed as testifying, only seven are now expected to attend. 

The ‘mark of the beast’ doctor 

Dr. Lela Lewis has made news in Florida for the free medical clinics her organization, Liberty and Health Alliance, helped put on. 

But Lewis is an ardent anti-vaxxer whose organization believes that the COVID-19 vaccine and public health protocols are a way to usher in the “mark of the beast.” 

In a document on her organization’s website titled “COVID, The Great Reset, and The Third Angel’s Message,” it states that “the implementation of COVID rules and regulations is clearly a step in the direction of history towards the political situation that must exist in order for the Mark to be given in accordance with Bible prophecy.” 

The document also claims that fatality rates for COVID have been “manipulated,” without providing evidence and claims that COVID will usher in the “Great Reset”, a term used in QAnon conspiracy theories that often refers to a shadowy cabal of elites seizing global power to oppress the people. It is often linked to the “New World Order,” another conspiracy theory that has deep roots in antisemitism.

Lewis has also crusaded against other culture war targets of the right, including critical race theory and gender identity. At a conference called “Upside Down,” Lewis brought together speakers who railed against these issues including one who decried the outlawing of conversion therapy. 

The HCQ doctor 

Dr. Peter McCoullough has made news a few times, mostly due to fact-checking. 

During the pandemic, McCoullough made a number of claims about COVID-19 and the vaccine, that drew national attention. During a July 13, 2021, interview on Fox News with Laura Ingrahm, McCoullough claimed there was “no clinical reason” to get vaccinated against the delta variant that was beginning to surge around the world and led to a spike in COVID deaths in the U.S. 

Prior to his appearance on Ingrahm’s show, McCoullough had already been a known source of misinformation, telling the U.S. Senate that there was no reason people under the age of 50 should get vaccinated. At the time McCoullough gave that testimony, people between the ages of 20 to 49 were seeing a major resurgence of the virus. 

While promoting these views, he was sued by his former employer, who said that he continued to use his former titles with them such as “vice chief of internal medicine at Baylor University Medical Center” in interviews in which he gave false and misleading claims

McCoullough also testified before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee, claiming that the antiviral drug hydroxychloroquine was more effective than public health measures such as masking. 

The cardiologist has also suggested on the Joe Rogan podcast that the pandemic itself was “planned,” that people who have been infected before have “permanent immunity,” that COVID vaccines are risky because they are “experimental” and that the spike protein in the vaccine is “dangerous.” 

None of those claims have merit. 

McCoullough has become a darling to those in the conspiracy and QAnon world, appearing regularly on shows like the one hosted by conspiracy theorist Stew Peters, who said the COVID vaccine is a “bioweapon.” Peters also was behind multiple QAnon conspiracy documentaries that made dubious claims about the vaccine, including that it included snake venom. 

McCoullough has also appeared on Flynn’s “Reawaken America” tour, where he has denounced drag shows and gender identity issues. 

The iermectin doctor

Dr. George Fareed has also been a frequent guest on right-wing shows

Fareed and his partner, Dr. Brian Tyson, regularly touted ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and other medications not authorized by the FDA to treat COVID, including in presentations to government bodies. They also attended school board meetings, where they argued against mask mandates for students and staff. 

Ivermectin, which is primarily used for treating parasitic worms and is not an antiviral drug, has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19. One form of the medication that is approved by the FDA is used for treating people with intestinal diseases and roundworms.

Nonetheless, it became one of the alternatives of choice to treat COVID in conservative circles, where skepticism about coronavirus vaccines continue to run high. Some even resorted to taking a poisonous version of the drug that is intended solely for use as a de-wormer for horses or other livestock.

Fareed has also made false claims about the efficacy of the COVID vaccine, saying that the vaccine does not reduce hospitalization and death. 

Data has consistently shown that hospitalization rates were higher for those who are unvaccinated versus those who are vaccinated. Additionally, data shows that those most at risk of death from the virus, including those 65 and older, showed a higher rate of hospitalization in the unvaccinated category than their vaccinated counterparts. 

The anti-vaxx attorney 

Aaron Siri is an attorney who is most well known for his work with an organization called the Informed Consent Action Network, or ICAN. 

The group has been on the frontlines of anti-vaccine misinformation and is funded by New York billionaire Del Bigtree. The organization was listed as one of the Biden administration’s “disinformation dozen.” 

Bigtree and his organization have been behind a number of discredited claims, including attempting to tie vaccines to autism, a long debunked claim. Bigtree and his organization has also been widely criticized by groups like the Anti-Defamation League for wearing a Star of David in an attempt to tie the anti-vaxx movement to the plight of Jews during the Holocaust. 

During the pandemic, Bigree and Siri launched a number of lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies and tech companies aimed at this agenda. 

Bigtree and ICAN have also appeared at an event at Trump’s Doral Resort in Florida that hosted a litany of QAnon speakers, and he has also rallied alongside the anti-government group the Oath Keepers. 

ICAN has also lied about the COVID vaccine in order to spread fear and misinformation about the vaccine to their followers and any others that will listen. 

The frontline doctor 

Dr. Richard Urso is part of a group called America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), which is led by Simone Gold, who is infamously known as the “Demon Sperm Doc” for her claims in a viral video that endometriosis is caused by having sex with demons in your dreams. 

During the height of the pandemic, AFLDS pushed for the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and stated there was no scientific proof for the efficacy of face masks, among other false claims

The group has also claimed to have “cured” COVID with a cocktail it sells, though it refused to submit the claim to peer review. Gold and the group’s communications director were both among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and Gold was given 60 months imprisonment for her role. 

Urso is a member of the group and has been similarly spreading misinformation about COVID and the vaccine. 

In March of last year, Urso claimed during a hearing before the Tennessee legislature’s House Health Subcommittee that people who had received a vaccine booster for COVID were at a greater risk of dying. 

There is no credible evidence to suggest what Urso said, and evidence actually shows the opposite, as do studies on the efficacy of the booster. 

Like the other doctors with AFLDS, Urso has been urging the use of hydroxychloroquine as an over-the-counter medication for COVID treatment.  

The doctor with retractions 

Dr. Pierre Kory is the co-founder of a COVID-denying group called the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance. The FLCCC is an anti-vaccine misinformation group, and Kory has been at the frontlines of spreading that misinformation. 

Much like many of the other doctors who will be presenting to the committee, Kory has been pushing for the use of ivermectin to treat COVID, and his group marketed a “cocktail” that was estimated to cost $500 that they said could treat the flu and RSV. 

Kory has called ivermectin a “miracle drug” and made a number of unsubstantiated claims about what it can do. He also has gone on conservative shows saying that there are “tons of journals” showing that the COVID vaccine is unsafe, despite that being an unequivocally false statement

Kory has also had his own scientific work retracted due to flawed results. A paper he authored pushing for unproven COVID treatments was retracted after the facility cited in the study said the data was incorrect. 

He has also been charging people thousands of dollars for his own COVID protocols.