The World Council for Health (WCH) is in no way what it sounds like, which is of course exactly the point. The organization’s website is set up to look like a public health nonprofit: a clean layout, a cheery little logo—a graphic of a hand inside an apple, a heart inlay inside the hand—and a bland mission statement, which proclaims that the group is “a worldwide coalition of health-focused organizations and civil society groups that seek to broaden public health knowledge and sense-making through science and shared wisdom.” There’s also a sprinkling of stock photos, prominently featuring Black women and children.
In reality, the WCH is an umbrella group for purveyors of COVID misinformation. Its dozens of large and small “coalition partners,” among which are groups that are regularly in the headlines and ones working behind the scenes, are based all over the world. They share one thing: a devotion to casting doubt on COVID vaccines and promoting discredited treatments for the disease. In the past few months, the WCH has declared that COVID vaccines are “dangerous and ineffective,” released a nonsense guide to “spike protein detox” after vaccination (premised on the completely false idea that the vaccine somehow looses dangerous spike proteins in the body), misleadingly claimed that COVID vaccination is leading to increased heart issues in both adults and children, and called on its followers to be “the hands and feet of this global coalition” and deliver a petition against the vaccines to their local elected officials.
The WCH isn’t alone. Since the beginning of the pandemic, a growing number of organizations, new and old, have devoted themselves to creating the perception that there are legitimate medical bodies who question the basic science of mask-wearing, social distancing, and vaccination.
Some are older fringe medical groups that have thrown themselves into a new fight: The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, for instance, a group Senator Rand Paul belongs to, is a libertarian-leaning organization which has opposed mandatory vaccinations for children for years and made the false claim that abortions are linked to breast cancer. During the pandemic, the AAPS has opposed vaccine mandates and passports and suggested in a press release that COVID vaccines were leading to what they called an “unprecedented number of lethal and disabling complications reported to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS).” (Anyone can report an unverified claim to VAERS, and misusing and misinterpreting VAERS data has become a cornerstone of the anti-vaccine movement.)
Then there are newer, headline-attracting groups like America’s Frontline Doctors, which has promoted discredited COVID treatments like hydroxychloroquine and which is now, as the Intercept recently reported, teaming up with conservative sting group Project Veritas to spread COVID misinformation and harass medical regulators on-camera. In December, the group followed and confronted Kristina Lawson, the president of California’s medical board, which she called “a terrifying experience.” The Vaccine Safety Research Foundation, which was founded by Steve Kirsch—a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spoke at January’s anti-vaccine rally in Washington, D.C.—has become, as the MIT Technology Review put it in October, a “misinformation superspreader.” (The organization’s name is extremely similar to that of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, which was founded in 2011 by actual scientists to advocate for more research and development for vaccines, especially for diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria that were, and are, ravaging developing countries.)
There’s also the Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, the fringe group whose main goal is the promotion of ivermectin, a drug which a recent randomized clinical trial found had no effectiveness as a COVID treatment. . The FLCCC is also a member of the World Council for Health; so is the BIRD Group, its British counterpart. The BIRD Group’s most prominent member is Dr. Tess Lawrie, who also sits on the WCH’s steering committee, alongside people like Mark Trozzi, an Ontario doctor who was barred in October from issuing medical exemptions for COVID vaccines, masks and tests.
Indeed, many of the WCH “coalition partners” promote ivermectin; the organization also recently released a press release claiming that a Japanese study had proven the drug is effective against the Omicron variant. (In fact, the study was not conducted on human beings, and an incorrect Reuters story is the main thing fueling this particular claim.) There’s a reason why ivermectin features so prominently: The fine print on the WCH’s website reveals that it is an “initiative managed through EbMCsquared,” yet another ivermectin-promoting organization that Lawrie is affiliated with.
The effect here is a bewildering nesting doll of jargon and affiliations, all designed to add up to look like something approaching medical consensus against vaccination and in favor of discredited treatments like ivermectin. Unlike most actual medical organizations, however, all of these groups take donations, often for very unclear ends; the WCH, for instance, which does not appear to be a 501c3 nonprofit, says donations will be used “as we chart a better way forward for world health.” The only video the WCH has uploaded to YouTube is similarly vague; against images of fluffy cumulus clouds, a series of worried-sounding sentences float by: “I need to talk about COVID-19,” one reads. “I need to know who is making the decisions for my health.” The anxious declaratives resolve into what’s meant to be a calming promise: “There’s a better way,” followed by the organization’s logo.
The WCH also acknowledges that many of its partner organizations are “civil society groups,” meaning “health freedom” groups that exist mainly to oppose vaccine mandates, and aren’t run by medical professionals at all. They include outfits like Police For Freedom, a UK-based group whose aim appears to be advocating against vaccine mandates for police, and Nuremberg New Zealand, which promotes particularly extreme COVID-denying claims, and says it’s collecting the names of public officials who will ultimately be named in what it calls “the largest class action in New Zealand.”
One thing that the WCH has undoubtedly achieved, though, is creating a sober-sounding organization for people to link to when they want to argue that some medical professionals oppose COVID vaccinations. Those people include Joseph Mercola, a longtime promoter of “natural health” and dubious treatments who has become a prolific promoter of COVID misinformation. Mercola wrote recently about the bullshit science of “spike protein detox”; the piece was little more than advertisement for the WCH and its “detox guide.” He then cited it again in another piece for the Epoch Times—always a hub of disinformation—in a piece that falsely referred to the vaccines as “gene transfer injections.” The anti-abortion website LifeSite News—which has also become a node for bad COVID information—has also cited the WCH, in an approving piece about its call to stop all COVID vaccines. (In a curious blurring of press release and article, LCH also ran something about the WCH’s launch that was shaped like news story, but bylined by Mark Trozzi, one of the WCH’s “steering committee” members.)
The organization has been cropping up more and more frequently in other news sources, often ones that seem to rely on aggregation and web scraping. A Nigerian outfit called the Paradise News, for instance, posted an article about the WCH calling for an end to COVID vaccines that was simply a copy of bullet points taken directly from the WCH’s website.That not only creates content for the Paradise News; it helps populate the hall of mirrors needed to make the WCH look like a legitimate, widely-cited medical body.
Well-known misinformation peddlers and conspiracy theorists have been, unsurprisingly, quick to start citing the WCH, including British lizard-person enthusiast David Icke and gynecologist-turned-vaccine opponent Christiane Northrup. But ordinary people are also slowly starting to cite the WCH as though it’s a legitimate medical body. On Facebook, a woman in Illinois claimed that her “nurse friend” had come up with a regimen for vitamins to take during COVID by relying on a number of sources, including the WCH. Another older woman in Kansas with a profile full of anti-vaccine posts shared a chart from the WCH that recommends taking a battery of things for COVID, including ivermectin, with the caption, “I hope this helps someone .” The slow seep from the world of medical conspiracy into mainstream social media has begun.
There is some precedent here, but in the world of politics, not medicine. In 2017, as Buzzfeed journalist Charlie Warzel wrote at the time, an architecture of alternative news sources had emerged, all devoted to pushing a heroic story about Donald Trump. Warzel called it a “new media upside-down,” a place where the story was always about the Trump White House’s successes, framed to look like real, unbiased news. (“We've really created parallel institutions,” Mike Cernovich, a juice salesman turned men’s rights activist turned central “New Right” figure, told Warzel.)
Today, the concept of a parallel institution is being put into energetic use to promote alternative, energetically twisted narratives about COVID and vaccination. Whenever the pandemic recedes, though, these groups and the architecture they’ve put in place will remain. Already, state-level anti-vaccine groups, animated by the pandemic, are using that new energy to try to push through anti-vax legislation. In the same way there’s no doubt that even after the pandemic ends, the WCH and outfits like it will remain just as devoted to promoting bad science, suspicion, and distrust. Their business model, after all, depends on it.