Home > Uncategorized > Selling snake oil on COVID-19 – posted 10/24/2021

Selling snake oil on COVID-19 – posted 10/24/2021

Here we are 20 months into the COVID-19 pandemic and I think we have some certainties and some mysteries.

Among the certainties: COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. They can keep you from getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. The vaccines were developed using science that has been around for decades. The vaccines are not experimental. They went through all the required stages of clinical trials.

If you do get sick from COVID-19, the vaccines will, generally speaking, keep you from getting severely ill. It also helps to protect people around you including people at high risk for severe illness. These include: older adults over 65, people with underlying medical conditions and pregnant people.

The Center for Disease Control has found unvaccinated people eleven times more likely to die of COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people and ten times more likely to be hospitalized. The overwhelming majority of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are in people who were not vaccinated. As of this writing, 736,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.

Among the mysteries: why have so many people denied the science and refused the vaccine when it clearly offers protection? Why have right wing politicians latched onto the anti-vaccine bandwagon and promoted alternatives which can kill their own supporters? Why are so many Americans vulnerable to the COVID-19 misinformation?

The prevailing view among vaccine supporters is that anti-vaxxers have watched too much FOX, listened to too much Trump or bought into some warped notion of personal liberty. It is easy to see the anti-vaxxers as simply anti-intellectual or anti-science.

I would suggest this is the wrong way to look at the anti-vaccine phenomenon. Since early 2020, there have been small organized groups of doctors and influencers pushing unproven and potentially dangerous alternative treatments for COVID-19. These influencers are modern-day snake oil salesmen. They have hugely profited off of misinformation and they are primarily responsible for spreading most of the anti-vaccination content on social media.

They are selling online consultations for $90 a pop as well as selling ineffective COVID treatments like Hydroxychloroquine, used for malaria, and Ivermectin, used for treating parasitic worms in livestock.

The website, the Intercept, has obtained much information from hackers that shows the scam being played on the American public. What we have are con artists selling quack cures. If consumer protection was actually functioning in America, this would not be allowed. Selling misinformation and phony medications is not harmless.

The story goes back to the creation of a group of pro-Trump doctors in 2020 who took the name America’s Frontline Doctors. They have worked with a small network of health care companies to dupe thousands of consumers into seeking ineffective treatments.

Readers might remember the “White Coat Summit” in July 2020 when America’s Frontline Doctors went public. Ten physicians, dressed in white coats, with an embroidered America’s Frontline Doctors logo, appeared on the steps of the Supreme Court. The Tea Party Patriots, a right wing group funded by wealthy Republican donors, organized it.

Dr. Stella Immanuel, a pediatrician and a religious minister, made a splash at the White Coat Summit when her speech went viral. She stated she had successfully treated hundreds of patients with Hydoxychloroquine, a treatment Trump had promoted. She argued against face masks.

Dr. Immanuel had particularly grabbed attention because she also alleged alien DNA was being used in medical treatments. She claimed endometriosis was caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches. She said the government was being run in part by “reptilians” and other aliens.

The leader of America’s Frontline Doctors, Dr, Simone Gold, an ER specialist, has been indicted for her role in the January 6 Capitol insurrection. She was charged with both violent entry and disorderly conduct. Gold opposes the vaccine, social distancing and mask use. She has hawked Hydroxychloroquine. She claims COVID-19 is not very deadly and she says the vaccine is more dangerous than the virus. She calls the vaccine an “experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine”.

The Intercept shows just how profitable the anti-vax consultations and phony medication sales have been. Thousands of consumers have paid into the millions of dollars although many customers have complained that they never received a call back after paying.

Beyond America’s Frontline Doctors, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) released a report showing that what it calls the Disinformation Dozen generates two-thirds of the anti-vaccination content on Facebook and Twitter. It names twelve well-financed influencers who superspread misinformation. Joseph Mercola, who runs a supplement empire, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Ty and Charlene Bollinger are among the twelve.

CCDH reports that social media platforms have failed to act on 95% of the COVID and vaccine misinformation reported to them. It makes it very hard for the public to make informed decisions about their health when they are constantly inundated by misinformation.

The Bollingers have falsely claimed that COVID-19 vaccines edit a recipients’s genes. They call vaccination “this abominable COVID shot”. The Bollingers sell a video series called “The Truth about Vaccine 2020”, costing $199 to $499.

The anti-COVID-19 vaccine influencers fit into the American tradition of snake oil salesmen where con artists peddle products with little value. Snake oil literally meant medicinal snake oil. Con artists claimed snake oil could cure many problems including pain, toothaches, sore throats, animal bites and hair loss.

In the late nineteenth century, the most famous snake oil salesman was a charismatic man named Clark Stanley who was called the Rattlesnake King. He said he had lived with the Hopi Indian tribe and learned their secrets. He claimed he had been bitten by dozens of rattlesnakes.

Stanley invented a traveling medicine show which became extremely popular. At fairs, Stanley squeezed snakes to death and decapitated them in front of an audience and then he tossed the snake carcasses into a large pot of boiling water. When fat rose, he made it look like he used it to make his snake oil, Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment. Crowds saw Stanley skim from the top of the pot’s boiling water.

It turned out that Stanley was not actually using snake oil in his product. It was mostly mineral oil, animal fat, red pepper, and turpentine. This scam pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 to prevent the spread of unsafe medication.

Stanley was not alone. He was joined by a wide array of hucksters with get-rich-quick schemes who sold potions, tonics, tinctures and oils. Back then, especially in rural America, doctors were not so accessible and scientific ignorance was widespread. There was a big market for medically needy people and miracle cures were very appealing.

In considering the 3 in 10 American adults who remain unvaccinated, I would emphasize the role of our current snake oil salesmen like America’s Frontline Doctors and the Disinformation Dozen. They are pushing magical thinking while lying to people in the middle of a pandemic, all to make a buck.

Certainly, prominent FOX personalities and our former President have also contributed to scientific illiteracy but it is the well-financed influencers who profit off of keeping the pandemic going who are primarily to blame.

Particularly insidious is that the hacked data obtained by the Intercept shows that people in their 50’s and 60’s are particularly targeted for the misinformation and they are more vulnerable to COVID-19. The influencers prey on wishful thinking, belief in New Age mumbo-jumbo, and naivete.

Too often, pro-vaccine people express exasperation with anti-vax individuals without pointing the finger of responsibility at the snake oil salesmen who are cashing in. Our American hyper-individualism conditions us to look more at the victims than the purveyors, Even at this late point, I am amazed how little attention the influencers have received.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Het Jowsey
    October 25, 2021 at 6:39 pm

    Yes, it is a fact that many in the US are shockingly ignorant of science and history and prone to believe the “snake-oil salesmen” identified in the Intercept report. But we need to look further back than 2000, with the stolen election which brought to power the “Project for a New American Century” faction of Rumsfeld-Cheney-Bush.
    With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the firing of PATCO strikers, American ruling elites committed themselves to a policy of extreme social inequality. This included closing factories, degrading the schools and all social and physical infrastructure, and encouraging money making through speculation. For over forty years, they have worked hard to “dumb down” the population.
    How many full-length specials on the science of Covid have run on popular programs? Why have the news outlets stopped reporting the daily number of deaths, now at a shocking level of over 1,500?
    Yesterday, the WSWS(dot)org ran a fascinating Webinar with seven major scientists and doctors, to discuss the science of stopping the Pandemic. The moderator David North made the point that the working class needs science, but also that scientists need the working class, which has been hardest hit by illness, death, and loss of livelihood.
    I will post the link in a second Comment.

    • October 25, 2021 at 9:50 pm

      Thanks Het. I am old enough to remember those Reagan era events. I had a friend who was a PATCO worker who got fired. You don’t have to persuade me. And thanks for sending that link. It sounds good. I will respond more privately to that email address you had me write to before.

  2. Het Jowsey
    October 25, 2021 at 7:01 pm

    Here is the link to yesterday’s Webinar on the Science of eliminating Covid worldwide:

    Scientists include: Dr. Michael Baker, architect of the Zero-Covid strategy in New Zealand; Dr. Deepti Gurdasani of Mary University of London on Long Covid, esp among children; Dr. Jose-Luis Jimenez of the Univ of Colorado & specialist on Aerosols; Dr. Joe Vipond, Emergency physician in Calgary Canada; Dr. Malgorzata Gasperowicz, researcher at University of Calgary, who advocates strong Public Health measures along with vaccines; Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, Federation of American Scientists, warning of the upcoming Winter; Dr. Howard Ehrman, retired physician and professor at the University of Chicago.
    Lisa Diaz from parent group SafeEdForAll, mother of two school-aged children in Wigan England, spoke of the return to school with no mitigation policies or vaccines, and the government’s threats to jail parents who do not acquiesce.
    David O’Sullivan is a London bus driver, victimized for advocating policies to protect bus drivers and their families, where 70 bus drivers have died of Covid.

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