Judy Mikovits has an urgent story to tell. In essence, it goes like this: Top government scientists are responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lot else besides. She knows because she was once one of them, before they tried to destroy her in an attempt to cover up the shoddiness of their work. America's top public health officials, she says, cannot be trusted.
Even if it's absolute nonsense (and to be entirely clear, it is) a lot of people want to hear this story, which is why Mikovits is atop the Amazon best-seller list and going so furiously viral—with a little help from some of the biggest figures in the anti-vaccine and conspiracy worlds, as well as several more mainstream public figures—that YouTube and Facebook can't keep her off their platforms, even as they attempt to pull down videos that feature her making entirely risible claims. That this veteran of the fringe is having this moment in the spotlight is surprising—and yet somehow entirely predictable.
What's surprising about Mikovits' viral moment is that the former chronic fatigue researcher experienced a precipitous fall from grace more than a decade ago, when a study she was involved in was retracted. She was subsequently fired from the lab where she worked over an unrelated controversy and charged with stealing property from her former employer. (The criminal charges were ultimately dismissed.) In the years between then and now, Mikovits remade herself as a purported expert in the anti-vaccine world. Like many anti-vaccine figures, she’s now pivoting to coronavirus skepticism, a stance as evidence-free as her previous endeavors and yet, given the fragile times we’re living in, a lot more successful.
Mikovits is the central character in a supposed documentary titled Plandemic, produced by a New Age film company called Elevate Films and its CEO Mikki Willis. (We say “supposed” because what’s circulating is a 26-minute clip—it’s unclear if or when the full documentary might appear.) It has, over the past few days, been in heavy rotation across all the major social media platforms. YouTube has pulled it down multiple times for violating community guidelines, and Facebook, on which it was widely spread by talking golf shirts, announced yesterday that it would also pull down the video for promoting misinformation. (Digital Trends reported that by the time the video was pulled from Facebook, it had garnered 1.8 million views, 17,000 comments and nearly 150,000 shares.) Despite this, it has managed to stay circulating, as NBC News pointed out yesterday, with the help of luminaries like Larry the Cable Guy and various Instagram influencers.
The number of provably false and misleading claims in the film are almost too many to list, but a few stand out as especially egregious. Mikovits is the only “expert” interviewed in the film, which should, in itself, be a pretty big red flag. So too is the apocalyptic, inflammatory language used by filmmaker Mikki Willis, who begins by claiming, in a somber voiceover, that “the minions of Big Pharma waged war on Dr. Mikovits” for her work.
In their conversation, Willis and Mikovits claim she was “arrested and put under a gag order” for making “a discovery that conflicted with the agreed-upon narrative.” This is an extraordinarily vague and misleading summation of what actually happened. In 2009, Mikovits and her coauthors claimed in a paper published in Science that their research showed that a mouse retrovirus called XMRV was responsible for chronic fatigue syndrome in humans. The methods behind the study were immediately, heavily criticized by the broader science community, and while Mikovits and some of her co-authors spent two years defending the results, the paper was ultimately fully retracted by Science itself. (Before that, in October of 2011, it was partly retracted, after the 13 co-authors signed a statement admitting that contamination marred the samples provided by one of the labs involved in the study. The authors were unable to agree on the wording of a full retraction, and so the journal pulled the study without their consent in December 2011.) Since then, other studies have confirmed that the mouse retrovirus definitively does not cause chronic fatigue syndrome.
By 2011, Mikovits was also making claims that, in retrospect, look like foreshadowing. As the New York Times reported at the time, Mikovits “raised eyebrows among other scientists for stating at conferences that murine leukemia viruses could be related to autism.” Soon after the study was partially retracted, in early December of that year, Mikovits was fired by the Reno lab where she worked at the time, the Whittemore Peterson Institute, for refusing to share a cell line—a type of cell culture—with one of her former collaborators. (The Institute denied that her firing had anything to do with the debunked study.) Mikovits was subsequently arrested and charged with theft when the Institute accused her of stealing a computer and lab notebooks from them. The charges were dropped in 2012, in part due to a mess of severe conflicts among all the parties in the case. As Science wrote, “The judge removed himself from the case because he received campaign donations from WPI co-founder Harvey Whittemore, who himself has been criminally charged with making illegal campaign contributions to a federal official.”
A civil lawsuit the Peterson Institute filed against Mikovits, which sought millions of dollars in damages against her, was decided in the Institute’s favor. The matter appears to have been settled out of court; the amount she was required to pay, if any, isn’t public. Court records show Mikovits filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in California in 2012. A federal lawsuit Mikovits filed against her former employer was dismissed in March 2020.
All of this presents a very clear narrative: A scientist was involved in questionable work and, allegedly, far more questionable conduct involving the theft of documents, and suffered the consequences of it. Mikovits has flipped this narrative, using the facts as evidence that she suffered because she dared to challenged the establishment. She has used what happened next that way, too—and very successfully, perhaps because some of the players involved are so prominent at this particular moment. But the facts of what happened are mundane.
After her very public firing, Mikovits was not run out of the scientific community, but found new work, supervising some data for a government-led chronic fatigue study spearheaded by Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University. Here is where Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom Mikovits has accused of personally stifling her research, comes in.
Fauci, of course, is the top scientific expert involved in the U.S. government’s coronavirus response. In 2012, he was leading the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health. The study headed by Lipkin was initiated at Fauci’s request and involved multiple institutes, and was meant to finally settle the question of whether XMRV was linked to chronic fatigue. The study found, definitively, that it was not, and the issue seemed firmly settled. Mikovits can even be seen in a 2012 video of a press conference on the findings, describing her role in the study and seeming to agree with its findings. (She’s featured 19 minutes in at the video at the link.)
“It's simply not there," she said. "Now is the time to use these valuable materials and move forward. And that's what science is all about. And that's what this opportunity was for the patient population and why I think it was so important that it was supported at the level it was by the NIH."
“Dr. Mikovits was funded in a study designed to test whether she and her colleagues could replicate findings reported in 2011 in Science magazine that showed an association between XMRV and ME/CFS,” Lipkin told VICE in an email. “She could not replicate those findings. Research teams at the NIH and the CDC also found no association.”
This was, seemingly, science working as it should. By 2014, however, things had taken a turn, and Mikovits had resurfaced in the anti-vaccine world. She’s spoken, for instance, multiple times at Autism One, the largest anti-vaccine conference in the country. In those lectures, she’s introduced such bogus claims as one that Zika, Ebola, and West Nile Virus were all “produced in a lab.”
At the same time, the narrative around Mikovits' work began to transform. By 2018, as Snopes noted that year, she had begun to be "lionized by the medical conspiracy community," with sites like Natural News and the Real Farmacy—both of which frequently promote pseudoscience and conspiracy theories—offering a version of events where she had been persecuted for uncovering a truth the Deep State didn't want brought to light. Real Farmacy described her firing and the criminal charges like this:
[S]he was thrown in prison for research that led to the discovery that deadly retroviruses have been transmitted to twenty-five million Americans through human vaccines … It was not long after the implications from the paper became clear and the Deep State saw the threat that was being posed to the vaccine industry that their powerful mechanisms of cover-up, obfuscation, and deception were activated.
Mikovits' work, of course, had proved nothing of the sort, and wasn't about vaccines at all. Soon after, per Snopes, she'd also begun claiming Fauci himself had sent an email threatened to have her arrested if she was seen on NIH property. Fauci denied sending such an email to Snopes, telling the site:
I have no idea what she is talking about. I can categorically state that I have never sent such an e-mail to Dr. Ruscetti. I had my IT people here at NIH search all my e-mails and no such e-mail exists. Having said that, I would never make such a statement in an e-mail that anyone “would be immediately arrested” if they stepped foot on NIH property.
Mikovits now claims, in Plandemic, that she was “under a gag order for five years” and forced into bankruptcy, and that, as a result, she couldn’t bring “97 witnesses which included Tony Fauci and Ian Lipkin ... who would’ve had to testify that we did absolutely nothing wrong.” Her timeline incoherently weaves back and forth from her work at Whittemoore to the NIH-backed study and back again. She presents a narrative in which she has been silenced and persecuted without engaging with what actually happened in her career. She also claims the “Department of Justice and the FBI colluded” to silence the truth behind the case, without it being entirely clear which case she means.
All of this amounts to her adducing her background as proof of her credibility without engaging with the details of that background. This is a typical maneuver in conspiracy circles, in which establishment credentials are valuable currency that needn't be examined too closely, and being run out of the establishment is even more valuable.
From there, the clip with Willis shifts into straightforward book promotion. Mikovits recently wrote a book titled Plague of Corruption with a co-author named Kent Heckenlively, who is a founding contributing editor to the anti-vaccine site Age of Autism and a regular contributor to the Bolen Report, a site that frequently traffics in anti-vaccine rhetoric. (It has a section devoted to the “VACCINE HOAX," for context.) But Mikovits finds time to make a number of other, bewildering claims, as Dr. David Gorski of the blog Respectful Insolence points out: “Indeed, the amount of nonsense, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy mongering in Mikovits’ response to questions is truly epic. She likens COVID-19 infection to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) ... She agrees with the conspiracy theory that doctors are being pushed to misclassify deaths due to other causes as due to COVID-19.”
Along with these things, Mikovits makes a claim that coronavirus was higher in Italy because of an “untested influenza vaccine” that was grown in dog cells.
“Dogs have lots of coronaviruses,” Mikovits says, confidently. “That’s why they’re not testing there.”
This returns to a claim that Mikovits made in a video VICE reported on in late April. In the video, which has since been removed, Mikovits claim that the novel coronavirus was secretly caused by a “bad strain” of flu vaccine that circulated between 2013 and 2015, adding that masks will “activate” the virus and reinfect a mask-wearer over and over. (Handwashing is also discouraged, for similarly incoherent reasons, despite it having been a basic standard of sanitation since the mid-1800s.)
“Is it safe to say that anything that can’t be patented is being shut down because there’s no way to profit from it?” Willis asks, near the end of the clip. ”All these natural remedies that we’ve had for thousands of years?’
In what will by now come as no surprise, Mikovits agrees that, yes, that’s what’s happening. “The game is to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected and push the vaccines,” she says, "knowing the flu vaccines increase the odds by 36 percent of getting COVID-19.”
That claim, that flu vaccines increase the odds of getting the coronavirus, is flatly and profoundly false, as are the claims Mikovits and Willis make about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug touted by President Trump which has failed to help COVID-19 patients in hospital studies. Those claims are followed, soon after, by Mikovits asserting that “healing microbes” can be found on the seas and sands of the beach. (This is why, it is implied, the beaches have been closed on the coasts of the United States.)
“You’ve got sequences in the soil, in the sand, you’ve got healing microbes in the ocean, in the saltwater,” Mikovits proclaims in voiceover, over a soaring aerial shot of a beach. “That’s insanity.”
All of this seems to be included in the service of making the point that we should reopen America and go outside. For good measure, as Gorski of Respecful Insolence points out, Willis throws in a clip of Dr. Dan Erickson and Artin Masahi, two urgent care doctors in California whose amateurish study extrapolating the incidence of new coronavirus antibodies in their patients to the U.S. population and arguing for America to reopen has been condemned by the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, which said in a statement, “These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.”
Mikovits also finds time to claim that the drug Suramin can treat autism and “give children back their voice" but was suppressed by Monsanto, which is even more absurd. The drug was given to patients in a small, randomized clinical trial at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, where it was found that an intravenous dose “produced dramatic, but transient, improvement of core symptoms” of autism spectrum disorder. It’s not clear why she’s claiming Monsanto was involved, or, indeed, what the point is of bringing Suramin into the discussion, except to throw another purported instance of Malfeasance By Big Pharma into the clip.
The volume of nonsense and revisionist history in the clip is truly, profoundly exhausting—which makes its virality depressing. And while the claims made in the video are incoherent, the underlying point is pretty clear: The fear and panic over COVID-19 are part of a larger plot of oppression and enslavement, with Fauci at its head. It’s classic conspiracy theorizing, wrapped in a slightly contemporary packaging.
“These institutions that are polluting our environment and our bodies, there was a time they had to fight their own battles,” Willis proclaims. “But they’ve done such a good job manipulating the masses. There is no dissenting voices allowed anymore in this free country, which is something I would have never thought I would live to see.”
“It’s beyond comprehension how a society can be so fooled,” Mikovits agrees. It’s “great news,” she says, “that the doctors are waking up."
Mikovits and Willis have had some very famous help promoting Plandemic: The clip has been heavily promoted by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine organization Children’s Health Defense; Kennedy also wrote the foreword to a Plague of Corruption. As of yesterday, thanks to their promotions and the attentions of popular right-wing, conspiracy-leaning sites like Gateway Pundit and people like conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, who’s enthusiastically promoted it, the book was the number one bestseller in Amazon's Books category.
This is where things get entirely predictable. As this pandemic drags on, nothing in the world is more appealing, for some people, than to find new reasons to believe that things aren’t quite as dire as they look. Staying home or being out of work or putting yourself at risk on the job every day: All of those are, in their own ways, difficult, depressing, life-changing. The strain of worrying about death, sickness, and economic collapse makes any alternative look appealing.
The suggestion that the pandemic was “planned” or overhyped feeds into that. It suggests that smart people will look beyond the official story and choose to be angry, instead of afraid. It suggests that Fauci, scientists, and public health experts—the entire medical community—have lined up behind a dangerous and damaging hoax. It suggests that everything is going to be okay, if you simply choose not to believe them.
And while none of that is true, and while the threat of coronavirus is as real and deadly as ever, there is, as Plandemic proves, attention to be had, and money to be made, from telling people otherwise.
Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.