In the ongoing saga of the ivermectin guys, who claim they alone hold the extremely dubious cure for COVID, it’s necessary to have an antagonist—someone they can say is threatening them for exposing the truth. Recently, it’s been the American Board of Internal Medicine, or ABIM.
Two prominent vaccine skeptics and promoters of unproven COVID treatments, Drs. Pierre Kory and Peter McCullough, said on Twitter that the board is threatening them for their work. This narrative has speedily picked up speed across the right-wing ecosystem, with one right-wing website claiming the board is going to “revoke their medical licenses,” which is not something the ABIM can do. The whole thing is a useful view into how mainstream medical bodies are struggling to deal with their still-certified but increasingly out-there colleagues. And it’s a very instructive example of how fringe medicine promoters—and their allies in Congress—immediately spin their tangles with the medical establishment into more fame and attention.
It’s worth noting here, very briefly, that promoting dubious COVID cures like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, neither of which have any proven efficacy for treating the disease, has led to real and material harm. Two people in New Mexico died of ivermectin toxicity, and the FDA says that overdosing on the anti-parasitic could have other serious health consequences. Hospitals have faced harassment campaigns for refusing to provide ivermectin to patients, as well as terrifying and bizarre incidents like the sovereign citizens who bodily removed a severely ill COVID patient from care in Ireland, claiming they were rescuing him; the man was later returned to the hospital via ambulance and died. Delaying medical treatment to pursue debunked or unproven cures has real consequences.
The current situation began when McCullough, a cardiologist formerly employed by Baylor Hospital who’s become a vocal vaccine skeptic, and Kory, a co-founder of the ivermectin-promoting Frontline Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, or FLCCC, both said that they’d received threatening letters from the ABIM, saying it was considering disciplinary sanctions against the two men from promoting misinformation. This immediately became a fairly big deal on the COVID-skeptical and ivermectin-promoting right, and the publication American Greatness immediately claimed that the body was threatening to “revoke the medical licenses” of both men.
That is, as a point of order, both wrong and very dumb: The ABIM is a certification body, not a licensing one. The ABIM certifies doctors who specialize in internal medicine and other subspecialties; that certification proves they completed a residency in their specialty and also passed a specialized exam.
“Licensure is required by law to practice medicine in a specific state and is issued by the state medical board,” a spokesperson for the ABIM wrote in an email to Motherboard. “Certification is not required to practice medicine, but board certification is required by many hospitals and health care systems because it shows physicians are committed to continued learning and evaluation.” (The spokesperson declined to comment on the specific situation involving McCullough and Kory, stating, “ABIM does not comment on concerns about individual physicians due to a strict confidentiality policy.”)
Neither Kory nor McCullough are in fact currently employed by a hospital or health system, for what it’s worth: Baylor sued McCullough in July of 2021, claiming he’d continued to imply he was affiliated with them after entering into a separation agreement with the hospital system. In September of this year, it won a temporary restraining order to keep him from mentioning his prior affiliation with the health system. (McCullough’s attorney told the publication MedPage Today that the lawsuit is “a politically motivated attempt to silence Dr McCullough.”) Kory previously worked at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Wisconsin, but resigned virtually the moment he began publicly promoting ivermectin; he’s now running a “tele-health practice” that does not take insurance, and which claims to specialize in treating long COVID and what he has termed “post-vaccine injury.”
This is not to say that McCullough and Kory are not facing disciplinary action or the loss of their certification; the ABIM has recently been taking a stronger stance on medical misinformation. In a statement it issued in September 2021, the organization wrote that disseminating misinformation could mean members could lose their certifications, writing:
Expertise matters, and board certified physicians have demonstrated that they have stayed current in their field. Spreading misinformation or falsehoods to the public during a time of a public health emergency goes against everything our boards and our community of board certified physicians stand for. The evidence that we have safe, effective and widely available vaccines against COVID-19 is overwhelming. We are particularly concerned about physicians who use their authority to denigrate vaccination at a time when vaccines continue to demonstrate excellent effectiveness against severe illness, hospitalization and death.
In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine published in May of this year, two senior members of ABIM — its president and CEO and the chair of its Board of Directors — wrote generally about the problem of physicians sharing medical misinformation on social media.
“With nearly 1 million Americans dead from Covid, and deaths — some of them clearly preventable — continuing at a rate of more than 200,000 per year, it has become imperative for our profession to empower our institutions to signal clearly who is — and who is not — providing evidence-based information,” the authors wrote. “We physicians need to use the institutions we’ve created for professional self-regulation to maintain public trust by establishing some recognizable boundaries. There aren’t always right answers, but some answers are clearly wrong.”
Flash forward to this month, when McCullough didn’t actually announce the letter he’d received himself; rather Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin did. Johnson is a frequent vaccine critic who’s railed against vaccine mandates, falsely claimed that COVID can be killed by Listerine, and held two panels platforming fringe doctors, including McCullough, and promoting the idea that COVID vaccines are unsafe. (Johnson is currently embroiled in a separate scandal, over an allegation by the House committee holding the January 6 hearings that his chief of staff handed Mike Pence a list of fake electors supposedly backing Donald Trump. Johnson has promoted conspiracy theories about, among many other things, the January 6 riots, once claiming that “fake Trump supporters” perpetrated the attacks.)
In a letter to Dr. Richard J. Baron, the president and CEO of the ABIM, which he also released publicly, Johnson said that he’d seen the letter the organization sent to McCullough, and demanded a rather curious response from the organization.
“I am in receipt of your letter to Dr. Peter McCullough, dated May 26, 2022,” Johnson wrote, “in which the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) provided notice that the ABIM’s Credentials and Certification Committee will hold a meeting to determine ‘whether to recommend any disciplinary sanction against’ Dr. McCullough.”
Johnson went on to demand that the ABIM participate in a panel about COVID, one clearly aimed at platforming—again—“alternate” views about the disease.
“It is well last [sic] time for the public to hear from many sides regarding COVID-19 in a public forum,” the letter read. “The purpose of this letter is to invite you, members of your Credentials and Certification Committee, and any other medical expert of your choosing to come to Washington and engage in an open and honest interchange regarding all aspects of COVID-19, without the threat of reprisal by the ABIM or any other organization.” McCullough, Johnson added, “will be given the same opportunity to name a panel of experts to represent diverse evidence-based viewpoints.”
Shortly thereafter, Kory of the FLCCC said on Twitter that he, too, had received a letter from the ABIM.
“I also got a letter from ABIM detailing multiple public statements I made as misinformation (from whoever they hired to investigate me),” he wrote. “I have massive evidence to support each statement. Bring it on ABIM, err, I mean FBI. Didn’t know investigating docs was part of your mission.”
All of this was clearly invigorating for Kory and McCullough. A direct challenge from a major medical body is a chance to loudly call for a debate (one the ABIM will obviously not engage in), and an opportunity to claim to their audience, again, that they’re being retaliated against. McCullough exuberantly tweeted at Kory, “Dr. Kory, we invited ABIM and all medical boards to come out of the shadows and face us for a public review of data on pandemic response, therapeutics, and mandated product safety and efficacy. We are ready for them all to come at us from all sides at once! Bring it on!” He included, for some reason, a gif of a fight scene from a Matrix movie.
Their fellow travelers have jumped aboard this particular train, too. The World Council for Health, a faux-medical body that exists to promote ivermectin and vaccine skepticism, promptly issued a statement saying they stood with Kory and McCullough “and all doctors facing attacks for treating their patients, standing up for early treatment, shining a light on Covid corruption and vaccine injury, and daring to ask questions.” It also attempted to float a hashtag, #LetDoctorsBeDoctors, which took off among a limited number of Twitter users with default profile photos and numbers in their names.
All of this happened before the ABIM has even imposed any sanctions against McCullough or Kory, let alone de-certified them. If they do, of course, the fringe doctors and their fans will respond with another round of debate challenges, more claims of being silenced—and of course, another round of attention. For snake oil salesmen fighting their way through a crowded marketplace, no one could ask for more.