How a group with right-wing ties duped tens of thousands of Americans into buying COVID-19 drugs that don't work
- America's Frontline Doctors, a group with right-wing ties, has been promoting fake COVID-19 treatments.
- It has referred people to a telemedicine site to procure those treatments for a fee.
- Its patients may have spent $6.7 million for medical advice and $8.5 million for prescriptions, The Intercept reported.
For more than a year, a group called America's Frontline Doctors has been stoking the flames of COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
The organization refers to itself as a nonprofit that advocates for physicians and patients. In reality, it has been instrumental in promoting disproven, often dangerous COVID-19 treatments, then referring people to a telemedicine site where they can procure those treatments following a consultation.
According to hacked data recently obtained by The Intercept, America's Frontline Doctors referred 255,000 people to the telemedicine site SpeakWithAnMD from July to September. During that period, around 72,000 people paid for $90 phone consultations, plus some additional $60 follow-ups. That math suggests that patients spent more than $6.7 million for medical advice from SpeakWithAnMD alone, The Intercept estimated.
After their consults, SpeakWithAnMD's physicians prescribe
The total cost of those prescriptions has reached at least $8.5 million, according to records of 340,000 prescriptions filled by Ravkoo from November 2020 to September 2021. That breaks down to $4.7 million for ivermectin, $2.4 million for azithromycin, $1.2 million for hydroxychloroquine, $175,000 for zinc, and $52,000 for vitamin C.
Ravkoo CEO Alpesh Patel told The Intercept that his company stopped doing business with SpeakWithAnMD and America's Frontline Doctors at the end of August. The hacked data, however, suggests that Ravkoo filled hundreds of prescriptions for America's Frontline Doctors in September.
"We don't control who sends us business," Patel said. "Let's put it that way. We don't have formal contracts with particular companies."
In some cases, patients paid for SpeakWithAnMD consults but never received a phone call from a physician, TIME reported last month. In other cases, TIME found, some people were charged hundreds of dollars for drugs that never arrived.
Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, recently told CNN that the service is "praying on people who are desperate, trying to sell them junk when they're in dire straits."
Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine can have dangerous side effects
Some of the drugs sold through SpeakWithAnMD can be dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration warns that large doses of ivermectin can cause serious harm, including nausea, vomiting, seizures, coma, and even death. From July to August, the US's 55 poison control centers saw a 245% increase in calls from people who had taken ivermectin.
The FDA does not recommend ivermectin to treat COVID-19, since the drug has only been approved as a treatment for certain parasites in humans, and for the prevention of heartworm disease in some animals. A March study found that ivermectin doesn't shorten the duration of COVID-19 symptoms.
The malaria drug hydroxychloroquine doesn't reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms either, other studies have found. Nor does it improve outcomes for hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Hydroxychloroquine can, however, increase the risk of heart problems, blood and lymphatic disorders, kidney injury, or liver problems, according to the FDA.
America's Frontline Doctors has ties to several right-wing organizations
America's Frontline Doctors formed in July 2020 as part of the Free Speech Foundation, an Arizona nonprofit backed by a pro-Trump group called the Tea Party Patriots.
The Tea Party Patriots had previously helped organize and publish an open letter that referred to lockdowns as a "mass casualty" event. More than 600 physicians signed the letter, including Simone Gold, a California physician now known for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Over the course of the pandemic, Gold has downplayed the severity of the virus and falsely suggested that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous.
Gold founded the Free Speech Foundation in June 2020. On the day her group launched America's Frontline Doctors, Gold appeared in front of the Supreme Court building to voice opposition to lockdowns and mask requirements. One of the other doctors at that protest, Stella Immanuel, suggested that a cocktail of hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and Zithromax would "cure" COVID-19.
America's Frontline Doctors started referring people to telehealth services early this year, The Intercept reported. In January, Gold told a crowd of churchgoers in Tampa, Florida that hydroxychloroquine was "available for the entire nation by going to our website."
"You can consult with a telemedicine doctor, and whether you have COVID or you don't have COVID, or you're just worried about getting COVID, you can get yourself a prescription and they mail it to you," she added.
The group began to tout ivermectin once the Delta variant took hold
As recently as August, Gold implored people to choose hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin over vaccines.
"Don't text me when you've gotten a positive test; I don't want to hear it," Gold told a crowd in Thousand Oaks, California. "I've told you ahead of time to get the medicines."
Jim Flinn, a public relations agent working for Encore Telemedicine, told The Intercept that SpeakWithAnMD "is not part of the anti-vax movement, and we do not oppose vaccinations."
For the last eight months, Gold has been dealing with legal trouble. She was arrested in January for her participation in the attack on the US Capitol, after being photographed with a bullhorn inside the building.
She faces charges of violent entry and disorderly conduct and entering a restricted building, to which she had pled not guilty.
Gold still retains her medical license, according to NPR.
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