House Coronavirus Committee Launches Investigation Into Organizations Pushing
On Friday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, announced an investigation into the right-wing, anti-science propaganda group America’s Frontline Doctors and telemedicine provider SpeakWithAnMD.com following an Intercept investigation. Clyburn called the two organizations “predatory actors” that have been “touting misinformation and using it to market disproven and potentially hazardous coronavirus treatments” such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
The committee, citing The Intercept, requested documents from America’s Frontline Doctors, or AFLDS, and SpeakWithAnMD about their business practices and profits. It wrote to the Federal Trade Commission requesting that the agency investigate whether these companies are in violation of federal laws.
“Attempts to monetize coronavirus misinformation have eroded public confidence in proven treatments and prevention measures and hindered efforts to control the pandemic,” Clyburn wrote in his letter to AFLDS. “Some Americans who have been influenced by misinformation have chosen not to get vaccinated, delayed receiving evidence-based treatment, and ingested unapproved substances in harmful quantities.”
An investigation by Time in August, also cited by Clyburn, revealed that hundreds of AFLDS patients paid SpeakWithAnMD $90 for Covid-19 consultations hoping to get ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, which public health authorities say should not be taken to treat or prevent Covid-19, but never received the medicine. Some were charged for the consultations but never got a call back from a physician; others who did get prescriptions were charged up to $700 for the medication.
In September, The Intercept obtained hacked data revealing that the network of right-wing health care companies was making millions advertising, prescribing, and distributing ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as an alternative to the highly effective Covid-19 vaccines. Between July and September, 72,000 patients whom AFLDS referred to SpeakWithAnMD were charged an estimated $6.7 million for telemedicine consultations alone. AFLDS began referring patients to SpeakWithAnMD in January, and The Intercept does not have data between January and July, so the total revenue from the operation is likely considerably higher.
SpeakWithAnMD then wrote prescriptions for the questionable treatments that were filled by the online pharmacy Ravkoo, which is not a subject of the House investigation. Ravkoo, according to the hacked data, charged patients an additional $4.7 million for ivermectin, $2.4 million for azithromycin, and $1.2 million for hydroxychloroquine between November and August.
The SpeakWithAnMD site was taken offline for a week after The Intercept’s story, which revealed security holes around sensitive patient data on SpeakWithAnMD.com and Ravkoo. Both sites are now up and running again. “[SpeakWithAnMD] is not part of the anti-vax movement, and we do not oppose vaccinations,” Jim Flinn, a public relations agent working for SpeakWithAnMD, told The Intercept. Alpesh Patel, Ravkoo’s CEO, told The Intercept that his online pharmacy no longer works with AFLDS.
In letters to Simone Gold and Jerome Corsi, the founders of AFLDS and SpeakWithAnMD, respectively, Clyburn requested detailed records from both companies, including documents related to ownership, organizational structure, and staffing; details about the doctors’ training and qualifications; numbers of patients and what they were prescribed; and descriptions of the companies’ total revenue and net income for each quarter.
The idea behind AFLDS was first floated during a May 11, 2020, conference call between a senior staffer in former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican activist group CNP Action, during which they reportedly discussed finding “extremely pro-Trump” doctors to go on TV and defend Trump’s plan to rapidly reopen the economy despite the more cautious safety guidance coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gold, who was arrested and charged after the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, calls Covid-19 vaccines “experimental biological agents.”
Corsi is a former host of InfoWars who reportedly spoke to Trump before he was elected president on several occasions about the false “birtherism” conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama’s citizenship. Corsi was also caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In another letter to Lina Khan, chair of the FTC, Clyburn requested that the agency “investigate the deceptive conduct of companies promoting and profiting from misinformation” about the pandemic, singling out AFLDS and SpeakWithAnMD. “Misinformation endangers public health and fuels vaccine hesitancy by promoting the false ideas that coronavirus vaccines are unsafe and ineffective and that alternative drugs can prevent or cure coronavirus infections,” Clyburn wrote. “Exploiting these falsehoods for financial gain puts American lives at risk and sets back our nation’s efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus. I am concerned that these predatory practices are endangering American lives and harming our efforts to stop the spread of the virus.”
Clyburn’s letter says he believes that the companies’ deceptive practices could “violate the FTC Act, the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, or other relevant laws. For these reasons, I urge FTC to open an investigation into these matters and appropriately exercise its enforcement authority.”