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Senate COVID hearing light on facts, heavy on misinformation


Senate COVID hearing light on facts, heavy on misinformation

May 26, 2023 | 11:29 pm ET
By Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Senate COVID hearing light on facts, heavy on misinformation
The Novel Coronavirus Southwestern Intergovernmental Committee meets on May 26, 2023. The two-day hearing featured a litany of falsehoods and misinformation about COVID-19, the public health response to it and treatments for the illness. Screenshot via Arizona Legislature/azleg.gov

A two-day special hearing at the Arizona Senate aimed at examining the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation and fear-mongering around vaccines and public health — all endorsed by the Republican state legislators who sat and listened intently and offered no pushback. 

The Novel Coronavirus Southwestern Intergovernmental Committee featured testimony from a group of supposed health experts who spread a myriad of misinformation about vaccines and the pandemic during the committee’s time. Many of them already have a long history of doing so. 

The committee had previously faced criticism for its name, which has been promoted in acronym form by the QAnon-friendly political nonprofit The America Project. The acronym, NCSWIC, is also a commonly used acronym in the QAnon world for the phrase “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming,” alluding to predictions of arrests of members of the “Deep State.” 

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.

The Republican elected officials on the panel were 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. 

While the state legislators were in attendance, Biggs, Crane and Gosar only appeared electronically and delivered pre-recorded video addresses as the debt ceiling debate still continues in Congress. 

Although 11 speakers were originally expected, only six ultimately showed up to give testimony. Shamp alluded to medical malpractice insurance being raised for speakers who chose to speak at the hearing as one of the reasons some people dropped out. She also cited fears of being “canceled” as another reason. 

But Shamp said she was undeterred.

“Silencing me on social media is not enough,” she said on the first day when introducing herself to applause and cheers from the audience. 

Shamp, a former nurse who has claimed she was fired because she refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine, came up with the idea for the hearing, Shope said.

The conspiracy-filled hearing comes on the heels of a similar hearing earlier this year on elections, which ultimately led to the expulsion of freshman GOP lawmaker Liz Harris when a speaker she invited made unfounded accusations that numerous elected officials — including some in the room — and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were involved in a bribery scheme with a Mexican drug cartel. 

Public health and vaccination advocates were sharply critical of the hearing.

“They invited witnesses to speak about false public health claims that have been disproven by multiple sources,” Becky Christensen, Founder and State Campaigns Director of SAFE Communities Coalition, the nation’s first pro-vaccine political advocacy organization, said in a statement to the Arizona Mirror. “Protecting public health is one of our lawmakers’ greatest responsibilities. 

“Giving a platform to those who seek to discredit the policies that have kept us safe from preventable diseases for decades, such as routine childhood immunizations, does a grave disservice to the people of Arizona and to our nation as a whole.”

Day one

Early on the first day, Dr. Peter McCoullough boldly proclaimed when introducing himself that the COVID-19 virus came from a lab in Wuhan, China, and was created with “U.S. activities.” There is no consensus on the exact origin of the virus, and the lab-leak theory implicates China, not the United States. 

McCoullough is known for spreading unfounded claims, especially around the origins of the virus. He previously has stated that he believed the pandemic was “planned” and has promoted the QAnon conspiracy film “Plandemic.”  

McCoullough has become a darling to those in both QAnon and the broader conspiracy 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 disgraced retired Gen. Michael Flynn’s “Reawaken America” tour, where he has denounced drag shows and gender identity issues. 

During his opening remarks, McCoullough spread a series of false claims, among them that social distancing didn’t work and that hospitals got “perverse incentives” for COVID patients who died. 

McCoullough and others spent the first day spreading misinformation about the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines and alternative treatments, specifically trying to connect the vaccine to adverse impacts and deaths that are non-existent. 

Dr. George Fareed, who said during the committee that the vaccines do not provide protection, also claimed that the virus was created in a lab and mentioned several times throughout the day that he was using the “McCoullough protocol” on patients. 

The “McCoullough protocol” appears to be a regimen that includes hydroxychloroquine and other drugs that have not been proven to adequately treat COVID. Fareed and others often touted a study done by McCoullough and others on a small number of outpatient COVID patients as proof of the validity of hydroxychloroquine. 

Later studies featuring much larger sample sizes have concluded that the “protocol” done by McCoullough, as well as hydroxychloroquine, were not effective and had no impact on treating COVID. 

McCoullough also appeared to make claims that alluded to a conspiracy theory widely adopted by QAnon adherents, and featured in a discredited film by Peters, claiming that blood clots found in people’s bodies were caused by the COVID vaccine. 

The film, “Died Suddenly,” suggests it is all part of a shadowy plot to depopulate the world. But experts who have examined the film’s claims have said that many of the clots appear to be post-mortem clots. Cases of clots caused by the vaccine are “very rare,” according to one study that found only approximately 1,000 cases out of 2 million. 

The most spurious accusations about vaccines came from Aaron Siri, an attorney who is most well known for his work with an organization called the Informed Consent Action Network, or ICAN. In his testimony, Siri mischaracterized vaccine research by leaving out key information about vaccine efficacy and safety.

“Vaccines were not given by God at Sinai, they’re just products,” Siri said during his testimony. 

Siri tried to connect vaccines to autism by claiming that there were no studies conducted by federal health authorities that had fully refuted the claim that vaccines given in the first 6 months of life were not causing autism. But that ignores the ample research done by others into the supposed links between vaccines and autism more broadly: Multiple studies have found no connection between vaccines and autism. And a 2013 study published in The Journal of Pediatrics concluded that there was no link between autism and the vaccines given to children in the first two years of life. 

The initial report that started the controversy around vaccines and autism was retracted and has been widely debunked in the 25 years since it was published.  

Siri also said that the inactivated polio vaccine “does not in any way stop the infection and transmission of the virus.” He did not mention that the vaccine prevents the paralysis that polio causes, or that widespread adoption of the vaccine worked so well that polio was eliminated in the Americas by 1994, in 36 Western Pacific countries in 2000 and in Europe by 2002. India was declared polio-free in 2014.

ICAN has been on the frontlines of anti-vaccine misinformation and is led by Del Bigtree, a television and film producer who has become an anti-vaccine activist. ICAN was listed as one of the “key organisations” tied to the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “The Disinformation Dozen”,” the anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about COVID vaccines.

The committee also heard from a local Arizonan named Kurtis Bay who said his wife was hospitalized for pneumonia. He claimed she was also treated for COVID while in the hospital, even though she tested negative for the virus when she was admitted. He spoke emotionally about his wife having to be shifted in and out of the intensive care unit while doctors attempted to treat her, eventually leading to a final decision where Bay and his sons had to say their goodbyes to her while she was in the ICU. 

Bay and the panel appeared to believe that the sepsis and blood clots found in her system were indicators of something nefarious, with McCoullough making note of it. Pneumonia is the most common cause of sepsis and septic shock. 

Day two 

On the second day of the hearing, Dr. Lela Lewis set up a “post-spike protein and exposure mobile medical center”outside the state Capitol building. 

Lewis and McCoullough both believe that the vaccine and virus can be “detoxed” out of your body — for a price. But that is untrue, and there is no science backing up the claims. 

McCoullough, Fareed and another member of the committee, Dr. Richard Urso, all urged the importance of preventative treatment of COVID and the use of the “McCoullough Protocol” or an “HCQ cocktail.” 

These cocktails can cost up to $500 and are also said to treat RSV and influenza. There is no evidence to show they treat any of these conditions. 

Urso made a number of outlandish claims Friday, including that the virus might have been created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Urso is part of a group called America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), which is led by Stella Immanuel, 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. Urso praised Immanuel for her “research” during the hearing Friday.

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.

Urso claimed Friday that masks do not work, comparing wearing a mask to wearing a swimming suit in a pool and urinating, to laughs from the audience in attendance. 

Urso and others have distorted recent studies to say that masks are ineffective, leading to the authors of the study to come out and address people like them directly. Science shows that masks — particularly N95 and KN95 masks — work to protect against the spread of COVID

During the second day of the committee, McCoullough, Urso, Fareed and others continued to promote alternative medications. They also called on lawmakers to strip oversight powers from the medical boards that oversee doctors. 

Urso said that the legislature has done a “good job,” but should look into giving physicians dispensing authority so people like Urso could dispense medications like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. 

The speakers also continued to spread long debunked claims, getting lawmakers in on helping spread the claims. 

At one point during the committee, Shamp held out a blank package insert for a Moderna COVID vaccine, showing it as proof that patients were never given safety information on the vaccine. 

This claim began spreading in December 2021, but the truth is that the information is readily available on the FDA’s website

Urso also claimed that “double vaccinated” children are “52 times more likely” to die, according to data in the UK. There is no truth to that statement and is based on the work of a blogger who took the data out of context. 

Another speaker, Dr. Pierre Kory, also made a number of unfounded claims. 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. 

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 talk 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. During his presentation Friday, Kory claimed the retractions were part of a coordinated campaign to suppress him and his colleagues. 

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

Kory and McCoullough suggested that thousands of deaths can be attributed to the COVID vaccine, re-upping claims that had been debunked because they mischaracterize CDC data

The final speaker of the day, Lewis, spoke about her organization and its scientifically unsound plan to help people remove spike proteins from their body. Lewis appeared to suggest during her presentation that the COVID vaccine makes spike proteins stay in a person’s body for a long period of time, causing all sorts of ills including damage to the brain and heart. (McCoullough also claimed the vaccine caused myocarditis; only about 1,000 people have been found to have vaccine-related myocarditis.)

This is not true, as the spike protein in the vaccines mimics the one on the COVID virus, and helps bodies learn how to fight off the virus by triggering an immune response, creating antibodies. Those spike bodies stay in our bodies for weeks, but not longer. 

Lewis touted her “Edenic Protocol” during her presentation, in which she claims a number of organic supplements help “break down” the spike protein. None of the herbal remedies suggested by Lewis have been found to have significant impact on COVID. 

The committee also heard from another local Arizonan who lost a loved one. Anne Teixeira said her mother received subpar treatment while hospitalized for COVID. 

As the hearing wound down, Shamp said that more committees like it will be coming. 

“This has been historic, because this has been the first time we have come together to discuss how we are going to move forward,” she said, adding that a committee addressing masking, schools and public health agencies all will be forthcoming. “This is just the beginning.” 

Urso thanked Shamp and Montenegro for their time and for allowing him a platform to share misinformation. 

“They face significant reprisal for standing up for the right thing,” he said. “Without these kinds of events, we are without a good platform.”

Caitlin Sievers contributed to this report.

***CORRECTION & CLARIFICATION: This article was updated on June 1, 2023, to correctly identify Del Bigtree, CEO of the anti-vaccine organization the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN). The group was included in the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “The Disinformation Dozen” as one of the “key organisations” that spreads the anti-vaccine messaging of 12 “extremely influential creators of digital anti-vaccine content.” The Biden administration used that report to pressure social media and technology companies to deplatfrom those spreading vaccine misinformation. The update to this article also includes additional context and comments clarifying the testimony of Aaron Siri, an attorney who represents ICAN and spoke in the hearing about vaccine safety and efficacy.

This article was also updated on June 6, 2023, to clarify that Aaron Siri’s comments about vaccines and autism were limited to the inoculations given to infants in the first 6 months of life, and to note that a 2013 study on that topic found no link between those vaccines and autism.