Back in 2011, we covered the strange story of biochemist Judy Mikovits, who co-authored a controversial (and subsequently retracted) paper in the journal Science and eventually lost her prestigious position with a research institution. Now Mikovits is back in the news, having spent the ensuing years reinventing herself as a staunch anti-vaccine crusader.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given her a new conspiracy to tout, this time targeting Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, who has become a prominent public spokesperson during the outbreak. Two interviews in particular have been spreading rapidly on social media, prompting YouTube and Facebook to remove both video clips for spreading medical misinformation during a global pandemic—a violation of their current policies
In 2007, Mikovits met Robert Silverman at a conference. Silverman had co-discovered a retrovirus known as XMRV, closely related to a known virus from mice. He told her he had found XMRV sequences in specimens from prostate cancer patients, although other labs, using different sets of patients, could find no evidence of a viral infection. Nonetheless, this prompted Mikovits to use the same tools to look for XMRV in samples from patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)—a disorder some had claimed was purely psychosomatic.
In 2009, Mikovits co-authored the now-retracted Science paper, reporting evidence of a retrovirus associated with mice in samples from patients suffering from CFS, suggesting it might cause the condition. It was retracted after other laboratories failed to replicate the results, and subsequent tests revealed the original results to be the result of sample contamination.
But Mikovits refused to back down from her claims. She was fired as research director of the Whittlemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease for “insubordination” after refusing to supply a cell line used in her work to a former collaborator. In perhaps the strangest twist of all, Mikovits was briefly arrested after absconding with her lab notebooks and computer files—legally the property of the institute.
This transformed Mikovits into a martyr for the cause in the eyes of many CFS sufferers, frustrated at having their disorder repeatedly dismissed and eager to latch onto a possible concrete biological cause. She became their champion, and their efforts to defend her sometimes turned dark. The most aggressive actions included bombarding researchers with freedom of information requests, lodging complaints with university ethics committees, and falsely accusing individual scientists of being paid by drug and insurance companies. Occasionally, there were even death threats. As Ars’ John Timmer observed nine years ago:
It’s no surprise that patients who frequently had their disorder treated with dismissiveness would respond positively to indications that it had a concrete, biological cause. But demonizing scientists who don’t support something that appeals to you is never going to end well, especially when all indications are that the scientists are being careful and thorough. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing more of this sort of behavior in areas as diverse as climate change, vaccine safety, and animal research.
Now Judy Mikovits is back as a patron saint of science denial. According to Retraction Watch, she spoke at the 2014 Autism One conference. Her talk included a slide with the self-aggrandizing title, “The best scientist in jail story since Galileo.” Last month, she published a book with Autism One co-founder Kent Heckenlively. Like most authors, she has been aggressively promoting it, repeating all manner of outlandish claims in the process.
In addition to appearing in a 25-minute YouTube clip from a forthcoming antivaxx pseudo-“documentary” called Plandemic, Mikovits was recently a guest on Patrick Bet-David’s popular YouTube podcast. She claimed that the current pandemic is caused by a flu vaccine from the 2010s and that wearing a mask would somehow activate the coronavirus. She also claimed that Fauci—whom she blames for “sabotaging” her CFR research—should be charged with treason. (Another attempt to smear Fauci with allegations of sexual assault backfired when the accuser had second thoughts and admitted she had been paid to make the accusation.)
This is all nonsense, of course. But the spread of these kinds of baseless conspiracy theories comes with a very real human cost. Not only has Fauci received death threats and been forced to beef up his personal security since he became a target, but other lives could be lost.
Retraction Watch has a useful list of its many posts following the Mikovits case, including the retractions, her arrest, and her unsuccessful lawsuit against her former employer. Noted health journalist Tara Haelle has a helpful list of science-based sources over at Forbes, debunking the specific claims made in the Plandemic clip, as well as tips for how to deal with friends or family members who share the video on social media. There’s an ongoing debate about how best to deal with this kind of harmful misinformation: ignore it or try to debunk it? The jury is still out on the most effective defense. Haelle falls firmly on the latter side:
If you don’t push back on them, even to those you love or don’t want to upset, you’re enabling them. You’re allowing people to spew harmful, dangerous nonsense that kills people and demoralizes the millions of health care providers trying to save lives. Many people try to avoid drama or debates on their social media accounts, and I respect that. But this video is not a time to “agree to disagree” because the stakes are too high. It’s a matter of life and death. The false statements in this video can cause deaths.
Zubin Damania, a physician who hosts a YouTube channel as ZDoggMD, opted to forego the kinder, gentler approach Haelle advocates. He reluctantly addressed the Plandemic video at the request of viewers, expressing shock that anyone would be taken in by its easily debunked assertions, and that somehow the clip has racked up over one million views. “The first five seconds of that video reeks of crazy sauce and no one can recognize that?” he ranted. “Don’t waste your time watching it. Don’t waste your time sharing it. Don’t waste your time talking about it. I can’t believe I’m wasting my time doing this. But I just want to stop getting messages about it.”
On the plus side, his impassioned three-minute rant has racked up more than two million views in two days. May it continue to be shared far and wide, even though it probably won’t change the minds of hardcore conspiracy theorists.