A key conservative doctors’ group pushing misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines faces growing fire from medical experts about its woeful scientific grounding, while its leader, Dr Simone Gold, was charged early this week for taking part in the 6 January attack on the Capitol.
The development comes as the US faces warnings its pandemic death toll could hit 500,000 next month, in part because conspiracy theories and baseless skepticism – especially from rightwing groups – have hampered efforts to tackle it.
Gold, who founded America’s Frontline Doctors last spring with help from the Tea Party Patriots organization, was arrested on Monday in Beverly Hills, where she lives, and faces charges of entering a restricted building, violent entry and disorderly conduct.
Prior to her arrest, a headshot of Gold holding a bullhorn that she used to give a talk inside the Capitol appeared on an FBI flyer headlined “Seeking Information” about suspects in the Capitol attack. The group’s communications director, John Strand, who writes for the conservative Epoch Times and was with Gold in the Capitol, was also arrested in Beverly Hills and faces similar charges.
A 55-year-old emergency room physician, Gold did not respond to calls and text messages asking about her role in the attack and why she baselessly calls a Covid-19 vaccine an “experimental biological agent”.
Simone Gold is a toxic purveyor of misinformation, now actively contributing to rightwing extremist rhetoric
Dr Irwin Redlener, Columbia University
Gold first acknowledged her presence at the Capitol and voiced “regret” to the Washington Post, after a video surfaced of her walking inside the Capitol along with Strand. Gold told the Post she thought entering the Capitol was legal, and she didn’t witness violence, even though dozens of Capitol police were hurt and five people died.
Last May, Gold’s group gained fast attention as several allied rightwing organizations, including Tea Party Patriots and the FreedomWorks Foundation, began a well-funded publicity drive attacking state lockdowns and downplaying the risks of the pandemic.
Gold and her fledgling group attacked policies advocated by top scientists like Dr Anthony Fauci and other national experts on the pandemic, and they promoted misinformation at rallies in Los Angeles and Washington and on rightwing media outlets owned by Salem Radio and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
Gold’s mission has included touting the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, a phoney Covid- 19 cure that Donald Trump endorsed which carries serious health risks, and suggesting that the lockdown’s mental health effects were more harmful than the Covid-19 virus.
Last July, Gold delivered her message at a well-publicized rally her group hosted in front of the supreme court, which drew about 10 doctors, including two ophthalmologists. Gold, who had been working at two hospitals before the rally, was fired afterwards and quickly tapped the conservative attorney and Trump ally Lin Wood to represent her.
Wood last year called Gold a “truth giver” and is infamous for backing false claims of vast voting fraud and saying the former vice-president Mike Pence should be shot. He did not return calls about Gold’s defense.
Veteran doctors and ex-public health officials were dismayed by Gold’s downplaying established science.
“She and her organization show a wilful ignorance of science and the scientific method, as well as a disrespect for accomplished scientific institutions and brilliant scientists,” said Dr Jeffrey Koplan, an epidemiologist and vice president for Global Health at Emory University who used to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, added: “Simone Gold is a toxic purveyor of misinformation, now actively contributing to rightwing extremist rhetoric that continues to rile up people determined to hang on to the most egregious Donald Trump lies.”
Gold’s rise in the conservative ecosystem and her role attacking mainstream science about the pandemic was underscored by a talk she gave last November at a meeting of the secretive, Christian right Council for National Policy which drew dozens of super wealthy donors and GOP and conservative bigwigs, including Pence and the Tea Party Patriots’ leader, Jenny Beth Martin.
Conservative donors involved with CNP include members of the billionaire DeVos family and the private equity mogul Bill Walton, a key CNP figure.
A GOP fundraiser said CNP meetings were “ideal places to network with high-level conservatives and raise a lot of money.”
Anne Nelson, the author of Shadow Network, about CNP’s influence and origins, added that the group “began cultivating Simone Gold at least as of early 2020, as a medical spokesperson to support the premature reopening of the economy. Their purpose was to benefit the Trump campaign, and counter the advice of leading public health officials.”
Gold’s questioning of vaccine safety was underscored the day before the Capitol attack, when she urged a rally near the White House not to take FDA-approved vaccines, labeling them “an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine” and telling the crowd not to let themselves be “coerced”.
Her group took off last spring when she worked closely with Martin of Tea Party Patriots to orchestrate a letter signed by some 800 doctors to Trump urging him to end the “national lockdown” and calling it a “mass casualty” incident causing wide depression.
Last May, Gold told the AP that there was “no scientific basis that the average American should be concerned about” Covid-19 – a view that has since been discredited.
Koplan offered a blunt verdict on Gold’s work: “The results of this dismissal of science takes a heavy toll on lives and health.”