The world of COVID deniers is, more or less, a marketplace, where a variety of ambitious hucksters loudly rattle their wares and hope someone, somewhere, will take them home. This can be challenging, since the COVID- and vaccine-skeptical have often promoted uniquely unpalatable advice on how to deal with the ongoing pandemic. They’ve advised their followers, for instance, to take up an antiquated faux cure-all that can turn you permanently blue, or else drink bleach, or your own urine, or choke down an anti-parasitic with no proven effectiveness against COVID. Even when the advice isn’t overtly bad, it can be contorted and hard to follow, as anyone who’s followed along with fringe medical groups and complicated theories about 5G technology knows. But at last, something has come along that even some of the most diehard conspiracy peddlers can’t swallow. That something is snake venom.
A faux documentary is quickly circulating throughout the conspiracy-verse, claiming to be an exposé revealing that COVID and COVID vaccines are derived from snake venom. More specifically, the theory claims that king cobra venom is being pumped into the water supply to sicken and envenomate us and imbue us with Satanic, anti-human DNA. Meanwhile, the government is suppressing monoclonal antibodies, which are really anti-venoms that could end the pandemic. (Even this extremely general summary lends the theory a level of coherence that it does not actually possess). The documentary, titled Watch the Water, was produced by a far-right podcaster and COVID conspiracy theorist named Stew Peters. The sole expert cited is a retired chiropractor named Bryan Ardis, who claims to have discovered this dastardly plan, which he ultimately pins on Dr. Anthony Fauci and, of course, the Pope. “I actually think the Roman Catholic church and Pope Francis is over this entire thing,” Ardis told one interviewer. “I think he’s manipulating and controlling the entire narrative.”
On some level, this is par for the course: every day, a new and poorly-made “documentary” anchored by the most dubious of “experts” rockets onto alternative video-sharing sites, claiming to blow the lid off this whole pandemic coverup. But Watch the Water quickly gained some traction and some fairly influential fans. The self-proclaimed Health Ranger, Mike Adams, who runs the conspiracy site Natural News, has devoted many articles, urgent video updates, and blaring headlines of his newsletter to the theory. He also links it to his own, even more fringe theory that the powers that be are attempting to create “reptilian-human hybrids.” The New Age figure and COVID conspiracy peddler David Avocado Wolfe has also shared many of Ardis’ claims to his Telegram channel, where he has over 100,000 followers.
“Yet more bombshells about snake venom and venom peptides used in vaccines, gain-of-function research and mass poisoning campaigns via ‘medication’ or ‘treatment,’” Wolf wrote. He followed a series of posts about the supposed venom scandal with a conveniently-placed ad for an activated charcoal product he sells to promote “detoxification for humans and animals.”
InfoWars has also hopped aboard this particular leaky ship; one of its most prominent non-Alex Jones hosts, Owen Shroyer, hosted Ardis for an interminable 40-minute segment. (Shroyer is busy these days, as he’s separately facing four misdemeanor charges for allegedly participating in the Capitol riots on January 6. He’s pleaded not guilty.) In a companion article, InfoWars claimed that the “predictable reaction by the establishment” (meaning people making fun of the documentary on Twitter) confirms that “Dr. Ardis is on to something and that much more research into the wild hypothesis is necessary.”
People like former Trump lawyer, election conspiracy theorist, and QAnon celebrity Lin Wood have also felt it necessary to comment on the claims, though Wood’s response was noncommittal.
“While I have some reasonable doubts about his theory, I admit that these days anything is possible,” Wood wrote on Telegram. “I think the water supply needs to be investigated. Maybe Dr. Ardis’ theory will spur a call for such an investigation. We may not find a snake venom compound in the water, but we may find evidence of contamination and carcinogens which have been slowly harming us for decades.”
At the same time, Watch the Water has also proven deeply controversial among some of the people who might have been expected to champion it; as the Daily Dot pointed out, that’s included a number of QAnon world figures like Brian Cates, a columnist with the misinformation-peddling Epoch Times. Cates wrote on Telegram, referencing the water supply claims, “Research for yourself. Don’t just instantly adopt some new claim some guy you never heard of two weeks ago presented to you.”
Larry Cook, a major anti-vaccine figure turned QAnon follower, is even more enraged, writing on Telegram that Watch the Water is a “snake in the grass.” He called Ardis a “virulent Trump hater” who was, he wrote, “handed a highly visible platform where he could be used by certain people to sell a fake narrative to the Trump movement.” (It is true that Ardis doesn’t seem to be a huge Trump fan. He has suggested—citing as evidence Trump’s having attended the University of Pennsylvania, which he inexplicably describes as “mega-Jesuit”—that the former president is in thrall to the Pope, whom Ardis says is behind the snake venom plot. He also claims, among many other things, that the Rothschild family is Jesuit and funds the scheme through control of the central banking system and that the Chinese Communist Party funds its Vatican masters through mass sex trafficking. Grouping Trump with such allies puts Ardis at some odds with Q cosmology.)
Major anti-vaccine organization Children’s Health Defense also ran an article faintly trying to fact-check Ardis’ claims by calling them “a stretch,” an absolutely thundering condemnation by their standards; the article added, “claiming COVID is ultimately derived from snake venom is a poorly substantiated hypothesis.” (In a delicious irony, the comments were immediately filled with very unhappy snake venom fans. “This article made me feel like I was listening to someone on mainstream media make a weak argument and defense of the narrative,” one irate commenter wrote.)
This is not Ardis’ first time in the spotlight, though his road to COVID conspiracy theorist has been predictably winding. Licensure records in Tennessee, where Ardis previously practiced as a chiropractor, show that he was disciplined by the state medical board in 2008 for failing to keep up with continuing education requirements. (Curiously or not, one specific reason he says people shouldn’t look to Donald Trump for medical advice is that “he has never been to a continuing education class, for crying out loud, about health care.”) He voluntarily retired in 2009 and no longer has an active chiropractic license. From there, he pivoted to health influencer, selling acne treatment products through a company called Ardis Labs.
Like many other ambitious self-proclaimed health experts, he took up a dramatically contrarian stance once COVID arrived, falsely claiming that the antiviral drug remdesivir is killing patients. The claims he makes in Watch the Water are actually just an extension of that claim. Ardis says that the Powers that Be are promoting remdesivir because it’s killing people, while limiting access to monoclonal antibodies, because they’re really anti-venoms. It’s true that in January, the FDA pulled authorization for the use of two monoclonal antibody treatments to treat COVID, based on evidence that they simply don’t work against the omicron variant; the one big issue here, though, is that the FDA then authorized a different monoclonal antibody in February, based on evidence that it does work against omicron.
This seems like one of those details that the sinister and snake-loving Pope and all of his many henchmen would have caught, but Ardis has an answer of sorts for that, too. Chief among Ardis’ many talking points is that fact-checking by major media organizations—and any real questioning of his preferred narrative at all—is all part of the demonic master plan.
“Fact-checkers’ jobs, they are paid to actually deflect people from the truth that’s being exposed… and take you back to the narrative mainstream media wants you to look at,” Ardis assured Shroyer in his InfoWars appearance. (Even me writing about this will surely be taken as proof of an influence operation of some kind, perpetrated on the American public by a CIA- or Pope-controlled mass media. In fact, my real aim here is to make sure you understand what’s going on when your most challenging aunt starts posting about snake venom on Facebook.)
In the end, what the snake venom theory provides is an ever more complicated chutes-and ladders-route to the same place the increasingly crowded field of COVID skepticism generally ends: bad advice that stands to make someone money. It stands to reason that people promoting Ardis’ theories will next begin promoting some kind of purported “anti-venom” or water filtration system to keep the snake venom from corrupting our DNA. At one truly jaw-dropping point in Watch the Water, Ardis suggests that “nicotine is protective against COVID-19,” meaning that he seems to quite literally be saying that viewers should not drink water and should smoke some cigarettes instead.
The energetic promotion of bad advice links Watch the Water to Plandemic, the first truly viral conspiracy video of the COVID era, and to the legions of purported medical experts who have never gotten within 10 feet of an actual COVID patient. But unlike Plandemic, the two main characters involved in promoting this theory—Ardis and the podcaster Stew Peters—are already infighting. As the Daily Beast noted, Ardis has mystifyingly accused Peters of misrepresenting him. “That wasn’t my story,” Ardis said of the lengthy interview between him and Peters. “My story has never been to create fear, panic, and anxiety about water.”
While this particular beef unwinds, COVID conspiracy theories are no doubt on the hunt for a new explanation for the pandemic that plays into all their preferred narratives, and, of course, a new purported expert to pin it on. In the meantime, the theories underpinning these viral videos never get less shaky, but then again, you don’t have to locate an actual snake bite to make money from the purported cure.