How 'America's Frontline Doctors' Sold Access to Bogus COVID-19 Treatments—and Left Patients in the Lurch
Tablets of Ivermectin on May 19, 2021.
By Vera Bergengruen
August 26, 2021 6:34 PM EDT
Mike says he was struggling with COVID-19 when he felt his breathing getting worse. He did not want to go to the Veterans Affairs hospital near his home, where he believed doctors might put him on a ventilator. And he knew they would not prescribe the treatment he really wanted: a drug called ivermectin.
So in late July, Mike, who says he is a 48-year-old teacher and disabled veteran from New York state, contacted America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD), a group he had been following on social media. AFLD has been a leading promoter of ivermectin, a medication typically used to treat parasitic worms in livestock, as a “safe and effective treatment” for COVID-19. Through its website, Mike says, he paid the group $90 for a telemedicine appointment with a doctor willing to prescribe the drug.
A week later, he was still anxiously waiting for the consultation. Calls and emails to AFLD went unreturned, he says. Finally, he called his bank to report a fraudulent charge. “Not even an apology,” Mike, whom TIME is referring to using a pseudonym because of his concerns about his job, told TIME in an interview. “This is absolutely nuts. This organization is not helping anyone but their pocketbooks.”
Similar stories have flooded anti-vaccine forums and messaging apps in recent weeks as some customers and donors raise doubts about AFLD. The group describes itself as a “non-partisan” group of medical professionals. But it originated as a right-wing political organization, and since its founding has consistently spread medical misinformation. Its name implies the group consists of physicians on the frontlines of the pandemic, but it’s not clear how many of its members have spent any time treating patients with COVID-19.
Its followers aren’t the only ones with questions about AFLD. It’s hard to pin down how many people the group employs, how much money it’s taking in, or how that money has been spent, in part because the non-profit has failed to file required disclosures. After it failed to submit its annual report in Arizona, where the group is registered under the name “Free Speech Foundation,” the state recently downgraded the organization’s charitable status to “pending inactive.”
Over the past three months, a TIME investigation found, hundreds of AFLD customers and donors have accused the group of touting a service promising prescriptions for ivermectin, which medical authorities say should not be taken to treat or prevent COVID-19, and failing to deliver after a fee had been paid. Some customers described being charged for consultations that did not happen. Others said they were connected to digital pharmacies that quoted excessive prices of up to $700 for the cheap medication. In more than 3,000 messages reviewed by TIME, dozens of people described their or their family members’ COVID-19 symptoms worsening while they waited for an unproven “wonder drug” that didn’t arrive.
“My mom has now been admitted to the hospital with Covid,” one user wrote Aug. 12 on the group’s channel on the messaging app Telegram. “AFLDS has not returned a call or message to her and they’ve taken over $500 out of her account!”
Since its founding last year by Dr. Simone Gold, a Los Angeles physician who was later arrested during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, America’s Frontline Doctors has nurtured medical conspiracies popular in right-wing circles. Created as a political project to support the Trump Administration’s economic reopening push, it ricocheted from promoting skepticism about COVID-19 to launching a national RV tour to denounce “medical censorship and cancel culture.” It promoted hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug and billed itself as a provider of legal services for people who refuse to be vaccinated or to wear a mask, or who want to stop vaccinations for children.
The group’s profile has soared amid the rise of employer-imposed COVID-19 mandates and the emergence of ivermectin as an alternative treatment of choice for the broader anti-vaccine community. AFLD’s Telegram channels have rapidly grown to more than 160,000 users. Its website traffic has quadrupled since April, according to an analysis by the web-analytics company SemRush, which estimates it drew nearly half a million visitors in July. In the process, AFLD’s reach has spread beyond to mainstream sites like Instagram and TikTok, making it a leading purveyor of medical disinformation that erodes public confidence and hinders efforts to get the pandemic under control, experts say.
“They’re the 21st century, digital version of snake-oil salesmen,” says Irwin Redlener, a physician who directs the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “And in the case of ivermectin, it’s extremely dangerous.”
Federal authorities are cracking down on coronavirus-related telemedicine schemes. The Federal Trade Commission has sent nearly 400 warning letters to groups and individuals marketing false COVID-19 treatments, including one missive, in April, telling a Texas medical practice to “immediately cease” promoting ivermectin or face steep fines. It is illegal under the federal COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, enacted earlier this year, to advertise that a product can prevent, treat or cure COVID-19 “unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence substantiating that the claims are true.” No such study exists for ivermectin, according to the FDA.
Yet despite the FDA’s warnings about the dangers of misusing ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19, the drug has become highly sought after in anti-vaccine circles. Doctors and pharmacists tell TIME they have noticed a surge in ivermectin prescriptions called in by telemedicine services, and a growing number of patients demanding it as an alternative to COVID-19 vaccines. Many who fail to obtain prescriptions through groups like AFLD or find it too expensive have resorted to buying an alternative from feed stores that is designed for use in livestock, according to Telegram chats, which reveal members advising each other on proper dosages. Mississippi health officials said Aug. 20 that 70% of recent calls to its poison control center were from people ingesting ivermectin meant for livestock.
The ivermectin craze reflects some of the most damaging elements of the post-Trump conservative movement, with a mixture of political profiteering, disinformation, exploitation of social media and conspiratorial thinking combining at a critical point in the pandemic. AFLD has capitalized on “the perfect storm of everything that you needed to have a large population of people susceptible to vaccine misinformation,” says Kolina Koltai, a researcher who studies the anti-vaccine movement at the University of Washington. “America’s Frontline Doctors are really good at what they do. This idea of doctors fighting the system is a narrative that is really appealing to a lot of people.”
‘A coordinated political effort’
On July 27, 2020, a small group of doctors assembled on the steps of the Supreme Court for a news conference. At the time, President Donald Trump was pushing for governors to reopen their states and conservatives had grown increasingly frustrated with lockdown measures. The physicians, who wore white lab coats embroidered with the AFLD logo, had come to repeat a range of White House talking points. They claimed the mental toll of the lockdowns was worse than the virus itself, that hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment for COVID-19 and that masks weren’t necessary—all of which had been contradicted by U.S. health officials.
To the extent that the mainstream medical community paid attention to the group at all, it was to point out that these doctors making misstatements lacked the expertise to comment. There was no evidence that any of the doctors who spoke that day had treated patients severely ill with the virus, according to MedPage Today, a peer-reviewed medical news site. None of them were infectious-disease experts or worked in intensive-care units during the pandemic. One was best known for promoting bizarre religious beliefs, including tweeting that America needed “deliverance from demon sperm” because people were falling ill from having sex with demons and witches in their dreams. Two of the “frontline” doctors were ophthalmologists, only one of whom was still licensed.
The emergence of AFLD was a coordinated political effort months in the making. The group was the brainchild of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive network of conservative activists. During a May 11 call of CNP members that was leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group, members complained that Trump was being slammed for his handling of the pandemic, including failing to follow scientific guidelines. The group needed their own medical professionals to promote their message, they said, in the face of data showing two-thirds of Americans were wary of restarting the economy.
“There is a coalition of doctors who are extremely pro-Trump, that have been preparing and coming together for the war ahead in the campaign on health care,” Nancy Schulze, a Republican activist married to a former Pennsylvania congressman, said on the call. “And these doctors could be activated for this conversation now.”
Eight days later, conservative groups publicized a letter signed by more than 500 doctors calling the lockdowns a “mass casualty event.” The lead signatory was Dr. Simone Gold, a licensed emergency-room physician and Stanford-educated lawyer who was working as a part-time, independent contractor in a hospital in Bakersfield, Calif. Ten weeks after the letter’s release, Gold was standing on the steps of the Supreme Court as the founder of AFLD as Rep. Ralph Norman, a South Carolina Republican, thanked the white-coated physicians for coming to “tell us the truth.” The event was hosted and funded by the Tea Party Patriots, a pro-Trump right-wing group.
While few people attended the event, a video of the press conference went viral after it was retweeted by Trump, earning some members of the group an audience with Vice President Mike Pence. And though it was subsequently removed by social-media platforms for spreading misinformation, Gold and other members made the rounds on conservative media, from Fox News to Alex Jones and Pat Robertson.
By then, the group had pivoted from hydroxychloroquine and medical choice to anti-vaccine content. AFLD falsely claimed the Covid-19 vaccines were “not effective in treating or preventing” the virus and that they had killed 45,000 people in the U.S. “This is an experimental biological agent whose harms are well documented,” Gold said in a statement on the group’s website in May. The group compared lockdown measures to Communist tactics of the 1950s and urged supporters to call their lawmakers to demand they introduce a “Vaccine Bill of Rights”—versions of which soon cropped up in Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota and South Carolina, including boilerplate written by AFLD.
Then, as the Delta variant tore across the U.S. and people in AFLDs forums started to report themselves or their family members falling ill, the group started heavily promoting ivermectin.
‘I feel scammed.’
Ivermectin first gained prominence in December 2020, when Dr. Pierre Kory, then a pulmonary care specialist at a Wisconsin hospital, testified about the “wonder drug” to a Senate panel chaired by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Trump ally known has touted alternative treatments to COVID-19.
The anti-parasite drug, which is commonly used for horses, is approved to treat certain parasitic worms in humans. It is not an antiviral medication and there is no evidence that it is effective in preventing or treating Covid-19, according to the FDA, which says overdoses of the drug can lead to vomiting, allergic reactions, seizures, coma, and even death.
Two pharmacists told TIME said they were alarmed when they noticed an odd surge in ivermectin prescriptions called in by telemedicine doctors in recent weeks. “We’re calling it the second coming of hydroxychloroquine,” one pharmacist in Maine says, noting he had seen prescriptions come in from “quack telehealth prescribers” in Texas, Florida, Illinois and California. “It’s wild to me and other pharmacists I’ve talked to how people won’t get a vaccine that is well-tolerated and effective because it’s ‘experimental’ but they’ll take a dose of ivermectin that’s been extrapolated based on weight from equine veterinary guidelines.”
On social media, AFLD is one of the top organizations steering customers to the de-worming medication as a coronavirus treatment. On its website, people looking for “Covid-19 medicine” are told to click on a button labeled “Contact a physician” and pay $90 for a consultation. The link takes customers to another website, “Speak With An MD,” where they’re asked to submit payment information and told that one of the “frontline doctors” will call them within a few days, with sick patients being prioritized. The group describes “Speak with an MD” as a “telemedicine service with hundreds of AFLDS-trained physicians.”
A whole lot more at the link. Judy Gold. How many times has posters here brought up THAT name?????