Tech platforms scrambled this week to delete a video featuring seven doctors who claimed their front-line knowledge of the pandemic contradicts the guidance of public health experts – even as President Donald Trump, his son and other political allies sought to amplify the video.
The event suggested the doctors’ personal experience gave them a valuable perspective on the public health crisis that they said was not being taken seriously.
And the major theme throughout the event by the group that calls itself America’s Frontline Doctors: touting the alleged benefits of hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19 and shooting down the science that has shown it does not have a clinical benefit for COVID-19 patients and even has increased risks.
“These are the doctors diagnosing, treating and helping patients beat COVID-19,” said Jenny Beth Martin – co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a pro-Trump conservative group that helped organize the event – during the news conference.
While their name, America’s Frontline Doctors, suggests the speakers may work in hospital emergency rooms or intensive care units and have experience treating critically ill COVID-19 patients, it’s unclear to what extent the doctors have such experience.
USA TODAY confirmed that most are physicians with active state medical licenses, but their specialties and experience suggests they were offering little more than personal opinions rather than research experience on infectious diseases.
while one is affiliated with a hospital that would treat critically ill patients and others work at urgent care or other clinics, none claim to be infectious disease experts or doctors working in a hospital emergency room or intensive care unit.
Many have also been vocal critics of lockdowns and supporters of the Trump administration.
Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, likened the views expressed in the video to his own opinions about foreign politics in an interview with USA TODAY on Wednesday.
Jha acknowledged the power of the image contained in the video: a group of doctors standing outside the Supreme Court, donning white lab coats, boasting an introduction from a U.S. congressman and spreading a hopeful message amid a raging pandemic. It proved a convincing package to the more the 17 million people who viewed one version of the video circulating online before it was taken down earlier this week.
Dr. Joe Ladapo, a UCLA physician who appeared in the video, told USA TODAY in an email that he appeared at the event “because I believe it’s critically important for us to have a discussion that includes different perspectives about our approach to COVID-19.”
Jha, however, said the idea that any doctor’s personal experience could outweigh more rigorous studies is simply unscientific.
“Experiences are trumped by scientific evidence,” he said. And in the case of the arguments made in the video, Jha says the evidence doesn’t back up their experiences.
Some of the allegations made in the video – including that a cure for COVID-19 exists – essentially suggest a global conspiracy to suppress an effective treatment to the coronavirus, Jha said.
“It’s not science.”
Who was featured in the video?
USA TODAY tried to contact all of the doctors who spoke during the controversial video filmed Monday to verify the organization’s claim that they are working on the front lines of the pandemic. One responded, another declined to comment and the rest did not answer. USA TODAY also reached out to Tea Party Patriots, the group organizing the event, and did not immediately get a response.
Many of the speakers have made public statements that clash with the opinion of the majority of public health experts.
- Dr. Simone Gold, who has identified herself as an emergency medicine specialist in Los Angeles. In May, she gained national attention for being a part of a group of Pro-Trump doctors who advocated for quickly reopening the economy. On her website, she claims she “works as an emergency physician on the frontlines whether or not there is a pandemic.” On LinkedIn, she says she works as a “Concierge Physician,” an increasingly common field of medicine where patients pay a monthly or annual fee for access to a physician, according to AARP. She is listed as having a renewed and current medical license by the Medical Board of California and self-reported to the board that she completes 30-39 hours of patient care per week.
- Dr. Bob Hamilton identified himself as a pediatrician from Santa Monica, California, with 36 years of practice. He’s listed as a pediatrician at Pacific Ocean Pediatrics, which reports on its website he has privileges at two California hospitals. He is listed as having a renewed and current medical license by the Medical Board of California.
- Dr. Stella Immanuel identified herself as a primary care physician in Houston and claims to have successfully treated about 350 COVID-19 patients. She has a full medical license in Texas, according to Texas Medical Board online records. She told the board she has a primary specialty of pediatrics and a secondary specialty of emergency medicine.
- Dr. Dan Erickson was featured in a previous controversial video criticizing lockdowns; he co-owns California urgent care centers. The American Academy of Emergency Medicine condemned Erickson for his “reckless and untested musings” relating to COVID-19 in April. Erickson is listed as having a license from the Osteopathic Medical Board of California. While the training for a doctor of osteopathic medicine is slightly different, focusing on more of a hands-on and holistic approach to health, they must go through a similar licensing process as physicians, according to the Mayo Clinic. His urgent care center, Accelerated Urgent Care, does have a current license with the state medical board.
- Dr. Richard G. Urso is listed as an ophthalmologist with Houston Eye Associates. He has a full medical license in Texas, according to Texas Medical Board online records. He told the board he has a primary and secondary specialty of ophthalmology. An assistant for Urso declined to comment to USA TODAY.
- Dr. James Todaro identifies himself on LinkedIn as a Detroit-area physician, managing partner of an investment fund and former physician with an eye group. Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs does not list anyone with a current medical doctor license by Todaro’s name.
- Dr. Joe Ladapo is an associate professor of medicine in the division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services Research at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is listed as a Hospitalist affiliated with Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center by UCLA health. Ladapo wrote in an email to USA TODAY that he has treated COVID-19 patients but that his primary work is in clinical research. He said that his research has not primarily focused on COVID-19 and potential treatments, but rather policy and management of the pandemic. Ladapo has written numerous opinion editorials critical of lockdowns published by national outlets.
A doctor who believes in demon sperm sued for medical malpractice
Immanuel has received heightened attention among the doctors in the group after a report from the Daily Beast highlighted some of her bizarre religious and medical beliefs.
The Daily Beast reported that Immanuel has stated “that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches” and that “alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments.”
The address listed for Immanuel’s practice is at the same strip mall where her Fire Power Ministries Christian Resource Center is located.
At the event for America’s Frontline Doctors, Immanuel also said masks are not necessary, despite evidence that has shown the use of face coverings can slow the spread of the virus through respiratory droplets.
In a video posted on Facebook in April, Immanuel is seen wearing full-body personal protective equipment in which she says her clinic offers screening for COVID-19 in its parking lot.
According to online records, the Texas Medical Board lists no investigations into medical malpractice against Immanuel; however, the Houston Chronicle reported that Immanuel was the subject of a medical malpractice lawsuit tied to a woman’s death in Louisiana, where Immanuel is also licensed to practice.
According to the Chronicle, the lawsuit says that a woman treated by Immanuel complained about a needle in her arm. Immanuel prescribed medication but did not perform a closer examination or tests, the lawsuit says, per the Chronicle.
The woman sought help hours later from a hospital because of the pain. A surgeon removed the needle, but days later, the woman died, the lawsuit says. Dick Knadler, an attorney for the woman’s mother, told the Houston Chronicle that the woman died from an infection.
Immanuel could not be reached for comment by USA TODAY or the Houston Chronicle.
Who organized the the white lab coat ‘press conference’?
The group Tea Party Patriots hosted the event, which also featured Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C. On its website, Tea Party Patriots published several other videos of the same doctors speaking at a summit, billed as part of the “Second Opinion Project.”
“American life has fallen casualty to a massive disinformation campaign. We can speculate on how this has happened, and why it has continued, but the purpose of the American Frontline Doctor’s Summit is to empower Americans to stop living in fear,” Tea Party Patriots writes on its website
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political fundraising, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, a super PAC, has raised more than $24 million since 2014 for Republican candidates and conservative causes.
The group also operates a 501(c)3 non-profit and a 501(c)4 social welfare organization, which allows it to participate in politics and influencing legislation.
On the group’s website, its super PAC pushes for Trump’s reelection as well as keeping Republicans in office.
Martin, the group’s co-founder who was also featured prominently in the video, has led the group and grown it “to be the largest and most effective national umbrella group within the Tea Party movement,” the group’s website states.
“Jenny Beth Martin and Tea Party Patriots now use their network to reach millions of Americans every week with education and updates about fiscal responsibility, free market principles, and constitutionally limited government,” the website says.
What we know about COVID-19 and hydroxychloroquine
Fauci and other leading voices in public health and infectious disease research have repeatedly said that the cumulative knowledge of scientific evidence to date does not show that hydroxychloroquine has a positive effect for COVID-19 patients and that there are risk in taking the drug for COVID-19 patients.
Hydroxychloroquine is an antimalarial drug, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has revoked its emergency authorization for the use of the drug in treating the new coronavirus.
The agency said in a letter the decision is based on new evidence that made it unreasonable to believe hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine “may be effective in diagnosing, treating or preventing” COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Citing reports of heart complications, the FDA said the drugs pose a greater risk to patients than any potential benefits.
The drug came to public attention after several small, anecdotal, non-peer-reviewed reports about hydroxychloroquine in China in February. None was up to the scientific gold standard of a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial that would more definitively show whether the drug worked.
An analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, found that many hydroxychloroquine trials have resembled lone-wolf research, overseen by individual hospitals and universities and have become became a frenzied hodge-podge of undertakings – an unprecedented scientific free-for-all in which research overlapped, studies were poorly designed, and patients were given drugs of unproven benefit.