There’s a video out there that claims to show a scientist being silenced by the government. I keep seeing people share it while saying things like “What do you think of this?” or “I don’t know if this is right, but it’s worth listening to.” If you want to learn more but are wary of being taken in by propaganda, I’ve written this for you.
The video is “part one” of an upcoming movie called Plandemic, and consists of a single interview between the filmmaker and virologist Judy Mikovits. She says that the COVID-19 pandemic was somehow created in a lab or is being allowed to spread on purpose (her story shifts a bit). There are a few subtle truths here, but nearly all of the actionable advice—whether to wear a mask or accept a vaccine, for example—is dangerously unsupported. If you’re having trouble figuring out whether to trust this video, or what information in it is true and what is false, we’ll break it down for you.
The larger truths
Before we get into any specifics, let’s talk about the assumptions that underlie the appeal of this video. For one: money runs a lot of things in this country. And Big Pharma has more power than it probably should.
This video paints the US government as untrustworthy, a statement I think everyone can agree with, although people of different political parties may have different ideas about which parts of the government they distrust.
The biggest truth that I think this video touches on is that we, the public, have heard confusing and conflicting messages about this pandemic. We are living through something truly unprecedented, and a lot of things about it don’t make sense. That’s unavoidable—it’s truly a new thing on this earth. But it also makes us long for certainty, and no one can be blamed for wanting to seek out clear messages.
But as we’ve discussed here before, the real experts discuss the uncertainty of the facts about our situation. Nobody alive today can possibly have 100% of the answers, so we should remain skeptical of anybody who says they can explain it all.
We crave certainty. We may prefer to hear facts that confirm our biases, or things that make us feel we have control over what’s going on in the world. We’re hungry for anything that can make this moment in our lives feel a little bit less weird. Remember, if you want to believe what you’re hearing, you should put your guard up just a little bit more.
Some important background
The video is professionally, expertly produced. It looks like a documentary. It spends nearly the first ten minutes setting up Mikovits as an expert in her field who has been persecuted and silenced. By the time she starts talking about COVID-19, we’ve gotten to know her and we’re on her side.
Somebody making a professional documentary would check her claims as she makes them, and would interview more than one person to get different perspectives, so this is our first clue that things may not be as they seem. (We’ve reached out to the production company to ask how they vetted her claims, and will update this piece if they respond.)
One of the most important things to ask about a piece of media is where it’s coming from, who has made it, and to follow the money in both directions. Who paid for this? And who benefits?
I expect in the coming weeks we’ll learn more about who commissioned and funded the video, but so far very little of that information has been made public. We do know that Mikovits, the scientist being interviewed, is selling a book that’s currently the #1 best seller on Amazon.
Her book is published in partnership with Children’s Health Defense, an organization led by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Its website features anti-scientific conspiracy theories, including claims that strongly imply vaccines and cell phone towers are giving children Alzheimer’s disease. Its frequently asked questions page calls herd immunity “absurd” and says it’s “debatable” whether vaccines save lives. These are flatly untrue statements.
So is this anti-vaxxer propaganda? It certainly seems to come from that background, but in the video, the interviewer asks Mikovits whether she is “anti-vaccine” and she says no. To the average viewer, that might seem reassuring. But if you’ve spent any time listening to anti-vaxxers, you know it’s a huge red flag. “I’m not anti-vaccine but...” is the science denier’s version of “I’m not racist but...”
And one quick note before we get into the content of the Plandemic video. Sometimes people ask me where my money comes from. I’ve been accused of being a “shill” for various interests when I write about controversial topics. So to be clear: About 98% of my income comes from being a writer for [Life Hacker]. The rest is from an occasional book royalty check. My books are on historical epidemics and basic genetics. My stance on controversial topics doesn’t affect sales numbers either way.
Company policy and professional ethics forbid me from allowing a subject or source of my story to influence the story itself, and I definitely cannot accept money to skew coverage. There’s even a “firewall” between the advertising division of the company and the people on my side, editorial, who write the stories. I have no dog in this fight. I just want people to be healthy and well-informed, and I follow the facts where they take me. Now I am sharing them with you.
How much of Mikovits’s backstory is true?
Impartial reporting tells a very different story than the version of her backstory related in Plandemic. This recent Washington Post article is useful if you want to read more about her.
Earlier in her career, Mikovits published what the video calls a “blockbuster” article claiming that chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by a virus. It later turned out that other labs could not replicate her results, and her own lab could not replicate them either. The article was retracted. But Mikovits went on to argue that viruses cause a variety of chronic diseases, including autism, and that they can be found in vaccines. There is no evidence for her claims.
Other elements of her story are exaggerated (or worse) by the storytelling in the video. A scene in Plandemic shows a SWAT team while Mikovits talks about being arrested without a warrant—but the footage is from an unrelated event and a news story at the time states that she turned herself in.
The events she was involved in were well covered in news stories and in science journals at the time; here’s a 1985 article from Science on the dispute over who confirmed the HIV results first. (There is no reason to believe that a publication delay here cost lives, as she claims.)
But enough about Mikovits. Is what she is saying true?
Does the COVID-19 virus show signs of having been created in a lab?
No. There are many coronaviruses, and scientists have long known that occasionally, a virus that infects one animal can end up being able to infect another (such as humans) with a small genetic change. There’s no reason to believe, as Mikovits says, that it would take “800 years” of evolution. Several pandemic viruses have emerged as a result of animal-to-human spillover. SARS, MERS, Ebola and multiple pandemic flu strains (including the 1918 and the 2009 ones) are just a few of these, and scientists have been warning for decades that there’s always another just around the corner. Here’s an excellent 2012 book by David Quammen that follows several teams of scientists who study these events and are trying to predict and understand where it might happen next.
Yes, there is a lab in Wuhan, China, that studies coronaviruses. It was founded in the wake of the SARS epidemic (which was also caused by a coronavirus) and yes, the US funded it, because if you’re interested in preventing pandemics, one thing you might do is fund the study of the same sorts of viruses that have caused large-scale epidemics in the past. There’s nothing fishy about this.
Scientists have repeatedly debunked the idea that the virus was artificially made. Its genome shows its clear relation to animal viruses, and not to coronavirus samples from the Wuhan lab.
Is Dr. Fauci really a mastermind behind everything?
Mikovits keeps dropping Fauci’s name, but never actually connecting him in any material way to the story she’s telling. The man runs a gigantic government agency; it’s not like he was in the office next door to hers personally interfering with things.
Listen carefully for his name throughout the video and you’ll see what I mean. It’s never actually connected to anything. For example, Mikovits alleges that Fauci orchestrated a coverup (of what is unclear), saying that people were “paid off big time.” Sounds spooky. But then she clarifies that she means researchers’ labs got funding from NIAID. That’s not a payoff. That’s the normal way a lot of science is funded. If there’s any reason to believe something sketchy was going on in the funding allocation, we haven’t seen any evidence for it.
Do the FDA and Big Pharma ban cheap drugs as a money making ploy?
Mikovits alleges that pharmaceutical companies are only interested in drugs they can patent and charge a ton of money for. It’s true that pharma companies’ business practices involve hiking up prices of drugs, and patents help, but Mikovits is sadly under-informed if she thinks drug companies need to conspire with the FDA to pull cheap drugs from the market to make this happen. If a drug works, the obvious move is to enjoy the increased demand and charge more.
I mean, we know this. Remember daraprim, the drug whose price Martin Shkreli infamously jacked up? It’s still going for nearly $700 a pill, retail price (less with a coupon, but that’s a whole ‘nother racket) and it’s not patented at all. Epinephrine isn’t patented either, but look at the price of Epi-Pens.
Charging a ton for drugs is business as usual, and completely legal. You don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain it.
As for her specific claims: Mikovits mentions a cheap, older drug called suramin that supposedly treated autism. The actual results of that trial were not as she describes.
She also mentions hydroxychloroquine as a potential COVID-19 treatment that is being squelched. Actually, there are 169 trials of it ongoing right now. It’s being used so widely off-label that the supply for people who need it for other conditions, like lupus, is in danger. And despite her claims in the video, there isn’t any solid evidence that it works—just hope.
Here’s a truth: The company that makes remdesivir, one of the currently most promising COVID-19 drugs, will almost certainly charge an unreasonable amount per dose just because they can. No conspiracy needed: That is literally the way our system is set up. Anybody who thinks Big Pharma needs a conspiracy to make money hasn’t been paying attention to how Big Pharma actually works.
Does wearing masks make us more susceptible to the coronavirus?
No. The video says that masks “activate” the virus. Where’s the evidence for that? There isn’t any. (This, by the way, is a specific claim that Facebook cites in removing the video as misinformation. “Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm, so we’re removing the video,” the company told the New York Times.)
Does staying inside weaken our immune systems?
No. Why would it? There is a theory that exposure to microbes while children are growing up can affect their immune function as adults, but there is no known phenomenon in which immunity fades when we stay inside. There are plenty of microbes inside our houses, anyway
By the way, the doctors quoted in this portion of the video are Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi of Bakersfield, California. Plandemic makes it look like these two are speaking for many doctors, sharing common sense observations, but that’s not the case. The American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) released a statement in which they “jointly and emphatically condemn” the doctors’ video (which was published on its own, before Plandemic’s release) for pushing misinformation.
Does the flu vaccine make you more susceptible to the coronavirus?
Not that we know of. There was no study done on the flu vaccine and COVID-19, and studies that looked at the flu vaccine’s effects on colds (some of which are caused by other members of the coronavirus family) found mixed results.
Are COVID-19 death counts inflated?
It’s hard to know the true numbers, but since tests still aren’t widely available, we’re more likely to be undercounting than overcounting.
Still, this is an easy question. You don’t need test results to see that deaths from all causes have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, in every country.
Do hospitals get more money if they diagnose a patient with COVID-19 or put them on a ventilator?
Yes, because hospitals charge more for treatments that require more resources. Hospitalized COVID-19 patients tend to be sicker and stay longer in the hospital than patients with other conditions. When Mikovits talks about Medicare giving hospitals $13,000 for COVID-19 patients, that’s not a gift or a bonus. It’s the price tag for their care.
Does this conspiracy theory even hold together?
Here’s the funny thing: no.
I listened carefully for the part where Mikovits—or anybody—explains why and how this pandemic was planned (because that’s the claim, right? Plandemic?). I was waiting to see how airtight the logic was, how hard it would be to pick it apart. It’s gotta be good, right?
This is all we get. Mikovits says:
The game is to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.
What kind of grand master plan is that? Once everybody is infected, nobody needs a vaccine. On the flip side, if you had effective therapies now, literally everybody would buy them. If you were unleashing a virus as a get-rich-quick scheme, wouldn’t you start selling a drug ASAP?
There’s another thing, too, and it’s a flaw in all conspiracy theories: how do you get every pharma company and every world government in on the grift? How do you even get one government to put forth a united front on an issue?
The White House and the CDC can’t even agree on whether we need a coronavirus task force. And we’re supposed to believe that our government is not only acting according to a single plan, but also coordinating with multiple pharmaceutical companies, and acting in lockstep with every government worldwide?
Once you think about it, you’ll see right through this in a second. Did they really use a closing shot of Fauci predicting a pandemic to imply that he started it? Or is it more likely that everybody who studies infectious disease knows that a pandemic is always around the corner, and we better be prepared? There have been pandemics in the past—it’s not like the Black Death escaped from a medieval biosafety lab—and there will be more in the future. Truth is stranger than fiction, and there’s no need to film fiction documentary-style to make it look like truth.
Updated 5/8/2020 at 7:42 p.m. to say “animal-to-human spillover,” as the surrounding text discusses, instead of the other way round.
Beth is Lifehacker's Senior Health Editor. She has written about health and science for over a decade, including two books: Outbreak! and Genetics 101. Her Wilks score is 302.