Enlarge /. After the effective end of her research career, Dr. Judy Mikovits reappeared as an anti-vaccine activist.
As early as 2011, we reported on the strange story of biochemist Judy Mikovits, who co-wrote a controversial (and subsequently withdrawn) paper in Science magazine and ultimately lost her prestigious position at a research institution. Now Mikovits is back in the news after reinventing himself as a staunch crusader against vaccines in the years that followed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given her a new conspiracy, this time against Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, who became a prominent public speaker during the outbreak. In particular, two interviews quickly spread across social media, prompting YouTube and Facebook to remove both video clips to spread medical misinformation during a global pandemic – a violation of their current guidelines
In 2007, Mikovits met Robert Silverman at a conference. Silverman had discovered a retrovirus called XMRV, which was closely related to a known mouse virus. He told her that he found XMRV sequences in samples from prostate cancer patients, although other laboratories that used different patient sets could not find evidence of a viral infection. However, this prompted Mikovits to use the same samples to search for samples from patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) for XMRV – a disorder that some claimed to be purely psychosomatic.
In 2009, Mikovits was a co-author of the now withdrawn science paper, which reports evidence of a mouse-associated retrovirus in samples from patients with CFS, suggesting that it may be causing the disease. It was withdrawn after other laboratories failed to reproduce the results, and subsequent tests showed that the original results were the result of sample contamination.
But Mikovits refused to withdraw from her claims. She was fired as research director at the Whittlemore Peterson Institute for neuroimmune diseases for "insubordination" after refusing to provide a former employee with a cell line used in her work. In perhaps the strangest turn of all, Mikovits was briefly arrested after escaping with her lab books and computer files – legally owned by the institute.
In the eyes of many CFS sufferers, this turned Mikovits into a martyr for the cause. They were frustrated that their disorder had been repeatedly rejected and eager to get involved in a possible concrete biological cause. She became her champion, and her efforts to defend her sometimes went dark. The most aggressive measures included bombarding researchers with requests for freedom of information, filing complaints with university ethics committees, and falsely accusing individual scientists of being paid by drug and insurance companies. There were even occasional death threats. As John Timmer of Ars stated nine years ago:
It is no surprise that patients who have had their discharge treated frequently for their disorder responded positively to evidence that they had a specific biological cause. But demonizing scientists who don't support something that appeals to you will never end well, especially when there is every sign that the scientists are careful and thorough. Unfortunately, we are now seeing more of this type of behavior in areas as diverse as climate change, vaccine safety, and animal research.
Judy Mikovits is now back as the patron saint of science denial. According to Retraction Watch, she spoke at the Autism One conference in 2014. Her presentation included a slide with the self-glorifying title "The best scientist in prison history since Galileo". Last month, she published a book with Autism One co-founder Kent Heckenlively. Like most authors, she aggressively promoted it, repeating all sorts of fancy claims.
Mikovits not only appeared in a 25-minute YouTube clip from an upcoming Antivaxx pseudo "documentary" called Plandemic, but was also recently a guest on Patrick Bet-David's popular YouTube podcast. She claimed that the current pandemic was caused by a flu vaccine from the 2010s and that wearing a mask would somehow activate the coronavirus. She also demanded that Fauci – whom she accuses of "sabotaging" her CFR research – be charged with treason. (Another attempt to smear allegations of sexual assault against Fauci failed when the prosecutor considered and admitted that she had been paid for the charges.)
Of course, that's all nonsense. But the spread of this kind of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories involves very real human costs. Not only has Fauci received death threats and has been forced to improve his personal safety since he became a target, other lives could also be lost.
Retraction Watch has a useful list of its numerous posts after the Mikovits case, including withdrawals, their arrest, and unsuccessful lawsuit against their former employer. Well-known health journalist Tara Haelle has a helpful list of science-based sources at Forbes that debunk the specific claims of the Plandemic clip and provide tips for dealing with friends or family members who share the video on social media. There is an ongoing debate about how best to deal with this type of harmful misinformation: ignore it or try to expose it? The jury is still on the most effective defense. Haelle falls stuck on the latter side:
If you don't push them back, even if you love them or don't want to upset them, activate them. They allow people to spit out harmful, dangerous nonsense that kills people and demoralizes the millions of healthcare providers trying to save lives. A lot of people try to avoid drama or debate on their social media accounts, and I respect that. But this video is not a time to agree, not to agree because the stakes are too high. It's about life and death. The wrong statements in this video can lead to death.
Zubin Damania, a doctor who hosts a YouTube channel as ZDoggMD, decided not to take the friendlier approach that Haelle advocated. At the request of viewers, he reluctantly responded to the Plandemic video and expressed his shock that everyone was caught by his easily exposed claims and that the clip somehow triggered over a million views. "The first five seconds of this video stink of crazy sauce and no one can tell?" he scolded. "Don't waste your time on it. Don't waste time sharing it. Don't waste time talking about it. I can't believe I'm wasting my time. But I just want to stop getting news about it . "
On a positive note, his passionate three-minute rant has triggered more than two million views in two days. May it continue to be shared far and wide, although it is unlikely to change the mind of hardcore conspiracy theorists.
A doctor reacts to a planemic.