Liberty Counsel, a legal group known for resisting LGBTQ equality, has helped lead the religious right’s resistance to COVID-19 public health restrictions on churches. It has also framed opposition to vaccination requirements and vaccine passports as religious liberty issues for people with objections to the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccine development. In the past two weeks, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver devoted two episodes of his new TV show to promoting outright conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 virus and the vaccine.
Staver’s “Freedom Alive!” show ran a two-part interview with Lee Merritt, an orthopedic surgeon and spokesperson for America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that made a splash last July with a press conference that portrayed hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19 (it is not). Video of that press conference was viewed millions of times before major social media platforms removed it for violating policies against misinformation.
During their interviews, Merritt described a conspiracy to keep hydroxychloroquine and what she claimed were other effective COVID-19 treatments hidden from the medical community and public, saying, “it takes a lot of juice at a high level” to pull off such a scheme. “We are being sold a whole matrix narrative of information that’s convinced us of things that aren’t true,” she said.
Merritt said this conspiracy is about more than Big Pharma protecting the multibillion-dollar market for vaccines. “You cannot terrorize a world with designer viruses if you have a treatment in your back pocket,” she said. “I think this is a big psychologic operation that’s designed not to make us healthier but for control.”
Staver agreed, claiming, “COVID-19 was just the stepping-stone to this more global issue of controlling and vaccinating everyone and tracing and tracking every single movement.”
Staver repeatedly referred to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which work differently than traditional vaccines by using messenger RNA to teach the body how to respond to the virus, as “so-called vaccines.” He claimed they work with a person’s DNA—they do not—calling it “shocking and frightening.”
“Think of it like a computer chip,” Merritt told Staver, adding that people should think of the COVID-19 vaccines as an “experimental biologic agent” or “experimental gene therapy.”
“Everybody who’s getting the quote-unquote vaccine—you’re the guinea pig,” Staver said.
Merritt made similar claims in an episode of the “Naturally Inspired” podcast that was published Feb. 26. She claimed that we are living in a “pseudo-reality” created by people that are carrying out a “flu d’etat.” She told listeners that Americans “are being played” by people with “evil intent.” She described masks as a “symbol of submission.”
In February, McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, published a column by its director, Dr. Joe Schwarcz, urging people to “back away” from America’s Frontline Doctors. Merritt “may be a fine orthopedic surgeon, but when it comes to the science of COVID-19, she is a bumbling neophyte,” Schwarcz said. The article also debunked Meritt’s insinuations, which she raised in the Staver interview, that dark forces were at work behind fires in factories that make ingredients for hydroxychloroquine.
In January, medical publication MedPage Today ran a story about America’s Frontline Doctors, saying that the group “that rampantly spread COVID-19 misinformation is back in the spotlight—but this time, sowing doubt about the vaccine.”
The article quoted Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, saying, “No real frontline doctor objects to this vaccine. Only the antivax, ‘health freedom’ movement linked to right wing extremism.”
Indeed, in the first few months of the pandemic, right-wing groups sought to downplay the danger of the virus and keep the economy rolling in order to help then-President Donald Trump’s reelection effort. Last May, the Council for National Policy’s action affiliate hosted a conference call with Trump reelection campaign staff to discuss recruiting pro-Trump doctors to push for a rapid reopening of the economy.
According to the Associated Press, Trump adviser Mercedes Schlapp took part in the call along with other members of the Save Our Country coalition, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, FreedomWorks Foundation, and Tea Party Patriots.
Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin helped organize the America’s Frontline Doctors press conference two months later. NBC reported at the time that the press conference, which was streamed live by Breitbart, was part of an effort “quietly backed by dark money political organizations, evangelizing treatments for or opinions about the coronavirus that most doctors, public health officials and epidemiologists have roundly decried as dangerous misinformation.”
America’s Frontline Doctors leader Simone Gold spoke last November at a meeting of the Council for National Policy, the secretive network of right-wing leaders, according to a report in The Guardian.
During the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Gold was caught on video speaking into a bullhorn inside the U.S. Capitol. Gold has been charged with violent entry, disorderly conduct, and entering a restricted building. America’s Frontline Doctors’ communications director has also been charged.
Liberty Counsel is far from the only right-wing group pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. On March 26, the New York Times reported that so-called Stop the Steal activists, who sought to overturn the presidential election, have now turned to a “stop the vaccine” message. “Bashing of the safety and efficacy of vaccines is occurring in chatrooms frequented by all manner of right-wing groups including the Proud Boys; the Boogaloo movement, a loose affiliation known for wanting to spark a second Civil War; and various paramilitary organizations,” the Times reported.
On a related note, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson just published a thorough debunking of bogus claims made by Fox News contributor and “pandemic gadfly” Alex Berenson about COVID-19 vaccines.