New ‘Plandemic’ Video Peddles Misinformation, Conspiracies
By Saranac Hale Spencer, Jessica McDonald and Angelo Fichera
Posted on August 21, 2020
The second part of “Plandemic” — a documentary-style video that presents a sweeping conspiracy theory about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, patents and vaccines — landed on Aug. 18, spinning together many of the falsehoods about the disease that we’ve been debunking for months, plus some new misleading claims.
The 75-minute video expands on the first installment, which captured widespread attention in early May. At the time, much of the U.S. was under various stay-at-home orders in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus about two months after the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 a pandemic. The first installment spread a number of false and misleading claims made by Judy Mikovits, a researcher known for her discredited work on chronic fatigue syndrome.
The new video, called “Plandemic: Indoctornation,” offers a more far-reaching conspiratorial take on the pandemic, with an underlying theme that the media can’t be trusted. It suggests without proof that the novel coronavirus was man-made and intentionally released.
The first installment spread largely on major social media platforms, but many of them — including Facebook and YouTube — removed it for violating policies against harmful misinformation. Filmmaker Mikki Willis — a former model who has claimed on his YouTube channel that the novel coronavirus was “intentionally released” — has capitalized on that fact, telling viewers in a promotional video that it was “the most banned documentary of all time.”
The sequel has been released on two video-hosting websites that bill themselves as being against “censorship,” promising to allow all videos to stay online, regardless of the claims they make. But each site includes a clause in the terms and conditions that allows them to remove content, similar to Facebook and YouTube.
So far, both sites appear to offer only videos uploaded by their creators — Brian Rose, who sells online self-help videos and promotes conspiracy theorists in England, and Ben Swann, an Atlanta-based content creator who is affiliated with the Russia-based, government-funded TV network RT, formerly Russia Today. Swann has made other videos pushing conspiracy theories.
Promotion for the video was done largely on major social media platforms, though, where links to the video have been shared on pages with a combined following of more than 3 million, according to data from CrowdTangle.
We’ll address some of the major claims in the sections below:
- The Event 201 Conspiracy Theory
- David Martin and Patent Claims
- Origins of the Virus
- COVID-19 Vaccine Compensation
- Out-of-Context Clip on Vaccine Timeline
The video devotes considerable attention to Event 201 — a tabletop preparedness exercise held in October 2019, before reports of the novel coronavirus in China surfaced in December. The event was hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum. We’ve written about it before — and information on the event, including videos, are publicly available.
The exercise brought together stakeholders from various sectors, including business and government, to simulate a “severe pandemic” involving a fictional coronavirus, with an outbreak beginning in Brazil.
The “Plandemic” video suggests a nefarious motive behind Event 201 and implies it is evidence for the video’s theory that the pandemic was planned. “Nature conveniently backs itself into our architecture,” Martin says. “That’s the scenario we’re supposed to accept.”
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses, and experts have known of the pandemic threat posed by coronaviruses for years. So it’s not surprising to those who study such outbreaks that a preparedness exercise would have centered on a coronavirus.
Dr. Donald Burke, the Jonas Salk chair in population health and professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, in a 1998 article discussing prevention of viral pandemics, warned that coronaviruses were among those that “should be considered as serious threats to human health. These are viruses with high evolvability and proven ability to cause epidemics in animal populations.”
Burke, who at the time was a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, looked at how viruses jumped between animal species and how they evolve, among other factors. “Coronaviruses had all the right tools in the tool kit” to trigger a pandemic, Burke told us in a phone interview.
He was proven correct in 2003 by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
SARS is caused by another type of coronavirus, which, importantly, is different from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Several different human viruses are included in the coronavirus group, ranging from those that cause the common cold to those that cause more severe illnesses, like SARS and COVID-19.
Burke said after the outbreak, infectious disease researchers — knowing that SARS could have been worse if it had been more transmissible — further recognized the threat presented by coronaviruses.
It’s “downright sensible” to have held preparation exercises on a potential coronavirus pandemic, he said. “If you’re concerned about epidemic diseases, coronaviruses need to be high on your list — and thinking through what a coronavirus epidemic might look like.”
Dr. Eric Toner, senior scholar and senior scientist at the Center for Health Security, told us in a phone interview that the center “chose coronavirus because it would be one of the believable pathogens other than flu.” He cited examples of other actual coronaviruses, like those that cause SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
The center has been hosting such exercises for nearly 20 years, he noted. In 2001, it hosted “Dark Winter,” which simulated a smallpox attack on U.S. citizens. In 2005, the center held “Atlantic Storm,” which involved a trans-Atlantic bioterrorist attack. In 2018, “Clade X” simulated a mock pandemic involving a novel virus without a vaccine.
The “Plandemic” video shows footage from Event 201 — with references to travel restrictions and misinformation, for example — next to footage taken during the actual pandemic about those same subjects.
But those specifics aren’t unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Toner, who was the project leader and principal author of Event 201’s storyline.
“Everything we wrote into the storyline are things that have happened over and over again in pandemics and epidemics,” he said.
The 2018 Clade X simulation also involved considerations of travel bans. Toner said such travel limitations are a known government reflex.
The center began preparing for the event about 14 months ahead of time, Toner added, long before the novel coronavirus began spreading in China.
If Event 201 is the backbone of the conspiracy theory in “Plandemic,” then David Martin is the central character. He’s featured throughout the video, making claims primarily about patents.
Martin runs a company called M-CAM, which analyzes patents and intellectual property to estimate the investment value of companies.
M-CAM has five investment companies as clients, managing assets of $1.1 million, according to a recent statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“Not big in investments, seems more like another guy using predictive modeling as a selling tool for many types of information,” Suzanne Lynch told FactCheck.org in an email, after looking through M-CAM’s SEC filings. Lynch has worked on Wall Street and is now a professor of economic crime at Utica College.
Samuel Rosen, an assistant professor of finance at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, similarly described M-CAM, broadly, as an investment research company and noted in an email to FactCheck.org that it appears Martin manages a small hedge fund, too.
But Martin has also peddled conspiracy theories over the years. He published a novel in 2011, which he claimed was based on real events, alleging a rigged 2008 presidential election that was somehow tied to the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Since the pandemic began, he has used his YouTube channel to promote COVID-19 conspiracy theories. He repeats many of those claims in “Plandemic: Indoctornation.”
In one video from April, Martin referred to Event 201, saying: “COVID-19 is a branded campaign … that is funded by people in the software, data sciences and social media industry. That’s who built COVID-19.”
The gist of Martin’s video was that wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates, technology companies, pharmaceutical companies and global health organizations colluded to create a virus that would force governments to fund research and development of vaccines and therapies in order to enrich themselves.
For “Plandemic,” though, Martin shifts his focus away from “the software, data sciences and social media industry.” Instead, he takes aim largely at government entities.
Martin claims that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saw “the possibility of a gold strike” when the SARS epidemic arose in 2003.
“They saw that a virus they knew could be easily manipulated was something that was very valuable,” he says, pointing to a patent filed by the CDC that year. The patent covered the isolated virus that causes SARS and ways to detect it.
Skimming across the screen while Martin makes that claim is a headline for a November 2003 news story about the race to patent the virus. However, that story doesn’t support his argument. It actually explains that the CDC wasn’t pursuing the patent for profit. Rather, it was doing so to keep others from monopolizing research.
“The whole purpose of the patent is to prevent folks from controlling the technology,” the story quotes CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant as saying. “This is being done to give the industry and other researchers reasonable access to the samples.”
Similarly, the director of the CDC at the time, Dr. Julie Gerberding, told reporters that filing for the patent was “a protective measure to make sure that the access to the virus remains open for everyone.”
“The concern that the federal government is looking at right now is that we could be locked out of this opportunity to work with this virus if it’s patented by someone else, and so by initiating steps to secure patent rights, we assure that we will be able to continue to make the virus and the products from the virus available in the public domain, and that we can continue to promote the rapid technological transfer of this biomedical information into tools and products that are useful to patients,” Gerberding said in a May 2003 telebriefing.
So, Martin’s claim is at odds with the CDC’s publicly stated motivation, and he offers no evidence to support his argument.
Next, Martin claims that federal law wouldn’t have allowed for a patent on that isolated virus.
Again, he’s wrong.
Instead of reading from U.S. patent law, as he says he is in the video, Martin reads from a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision. That’s an important distinction since the decision, which changed one aspect of patent law that’s relevant here, came 10 years after the CDC filed for a patent related to the virus that causes SARS.
“Nature is prohibited from being patented,” Martin says, claiming that he was quoting from a section of patent law. Building on that, he claims, “either SARS, coronavirus, was manufactured, therefore making a patent on it legal, or it was natural, therefore making a patent on it illegal.”
But that’s a false dichotomy.
While the Supreme Court did find that “[a] naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” that decision came a decade after the CDC sought the patent.
“Isolated genes (that is, genes extracted from a longer DNA sequence) used to be patentable in the past because the courts decided that just the act of extracting them and removing the non-coding segments caused enough of a modification to turn them into patent-eligible things,” Mario Biagioli, a professor at UCLA School of Law, told FactCheck.org in an email. “No more. A few years ago the Supreme Court decided that simply isolating a gene did not change it enough. It remained a ‘product of nature’ and therefore unpatentable.”
So, claiming that the patent is either illegal or the virus was “manufactured” is wrong.
After that, Martin takes his claim one step further, saying: “If it was manufactured, it was a violation of biological and chemical weapons treaties and laws. If it was natural, filing a patent on it was illegal. In either outcome, both are illegal.”
That’s not right, either, said Arti Rai, a professor at Duke University School of Law, in a phone interview with FactCheck.org.
In order for scientists to do research on either diseases or biological weapons, they need access to the underlying biological material and there are laws governing who can do that research and in what facilities, said Rai. It’s not necessarily illegal to possess such material.
Also, she noted, something that is illegal to use, like a chemical or biological weapon, isn’t illegal to patent.
“Lots of things have been patented over the years that would be illegal to use,” said Rai. She gave the example of devices for taking illegal drugs, explaining that having a patent on something doesn’t give you the right to use it.
Altogether, the statements Martin makes about legal issues are inaccurate, Rai said, and the way the video presents connections related to those statements are inaccurate, too.
“They try to connect dots in a way that is misleading,” she said.
It’s worth repeating, the 2003 patent filing Martin references involves a different virus than the one that causes COVID-19.
But he isn’t the first to make claims like this. Falsehoods tying unrelated patents to the novel coronavirus have been circulating almost as long as COVID-19 has been around. We wrote about some in January.
After laying the groundwork by suggesting something nefarious was afoot with patents, the video goes on to claim that the novel coronavirus was designed in a lab.
It’s a reprise of one of the claims made by Mikovits in the first video installment, which we addressed then, and other versions of the claim have been circulating since the beginning of the year, which we’ve addressed, too.
While scientists don’t know exactly how the virus transmitted to humans, the consensus is that it was naturally occurring.
“Plandemic,” however, highlights two people who don’t join that consensus. It first shows Dr. Meryl Nass, who is licensed to practice internal medicine in Maine. She campaigned earlier this year against a state law there that required children to be vaccinated. Voters upheld the law in a March referendum. The video then shows Luc Montagnier, who shared a Nobel Prize in 2008 for his contributions in identifying the virus known as HIV in 1983.
Montagnier’s cameo in “Plandemic” is short. Referring to the creation of the novel coronavirus, Willis, the filmmaker, says to him: “You were quoted as saying, ‘it was a meticulous job, done professionally.’”
Montagnier responds: “It could be done by somebody very expert in molecular biology, I think.”
The video then cuts to a clip of Montagnier’s appearance on a French news show. It doesn’t offer evidence to support the claim or give any further explanation of it.
Nass appears for a little longer, but she doesn’t offer any evidence to support her claims, either.
“I feel quite convinced that this is a laboratory-designed organism,” Nass says.
But an article published in Nature Medicine in March found that the novel coronavirus “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
The authors said that the virus likely originated in one of two ways: “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer,” meaning before the spread of disease from animals to humans, or “natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.”
The virus likely developed in bats before transferring to humans, either directly or through another animal, the World Health Organization explained in March. The CDC has released similar background information.
An accidental laboratory release of the naturally occurring virus can’t be ruled out, according to the Nature Medicine article, but the authors said they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
Nass twice repeats her criticism that the article doesn’t “hold water,” but she provides no further explanation or evidence to support the claim that the virus was developed in a lab.
Near the end of “Plandemic,” the filmmakers raise the specter of safety concerns of a COVID-19 vaccine, and make the false claim that it’s “basically impossible” to get compensation if someone is injured from the vaccine.
“Something that people should know about COVID-19 vaccines is they fall today under the PREP Act, which came into being after 9/11 and after an anthrax scare,” says Mary Holland, the vice chair and general counsel for Children’s Health Defense, a prominent organization opposed to vaccination, in a talking-head interview in the video. “And this law gives virtually blanket liability protection. It’s basically impossible to get any kind of compensation if you’re injured.”
She continues: “So people need to understand that if you take COVID-19 vaccines, you are absolutely on your own. If you’re permanently injured, if you lose your job, if your health care expenses go through the roof — tough luck.”
Holland is correct that COVID-19 vaccines fall under the PREP Act, or Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act of 2005, which provides liability protection for vaccine makers and other companies involved in producing drugs or other products to aid in a pandemic response.
The liability protection is broad, although it does not extend to death or a serious physical injury that results from willful misconduct, as a Health and Human Services Q&A explains.
But Holland is wrong that it’s nearly impossible to get compensation for an injury. In fact, there is an entire system set up to provide compensation for those harmed by vaccines and other products in these scenarios, known as the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, or CICP.
“It is not accurate to say that one cannot get any form of compensation for serious injuries/death resulting from a COVID-19 vaccine, as the CICP is available to provide compensation for countermeasures used in response to public health emergencies and threats, and a covered countermeasure is defined to include vaccines, such as a COVID-19 vaccine,” Eva F. Yin, an associate with the law firm Wilson Sonsini and author of a client advisory about the PREP Act and COVID-19, told us in an email.
According to a Health Resources & Services Administration fact sheet, the program has been in place since 2010, and compensation “may include unreimbursed medical expenses (expenses that health insurance did not cover), lost employment income, and the survivor death benefit.”
A Congressional Research Service report explains that for COVID-19, both the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act appropriate funding that can be used by the compensation program. The report, which mentions the compensation program numerous times, is the same congressional report that the video flashes on screen while Holland makes her false claim.
HRSA spokesman David Bowman told us that people have a year to submit a claim, which is reviewed by medical staff to determine if the individual experienced a covered injury. The decision, he said, is based on “compelling, reliable, valid, medical and scientific evidence.”
Bowman said the program covers COVID-19 vaccines used in clinical trials. Since its inception in 2010, CICP has paid out a total of $5.7 million for 39 claims.
Most non-pandemic vaccines are covered by a different program, also administered by HRSA, known as the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.
A voiceover declares a vaccine to be a “great hope,” and asks, “But are we being sold a lie? After all, COVID-19 is the seventh coronavirus to strike mankind, and we’ve never found a vaccine for any of them.”
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, so it isn’t a coronavirus itself. SARS-CoV-2 is indeed the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans. But four of the human coronaviruses are mild viruses that typically cause cold-like illnesses that are not particularly worth vaccinating against.
The two others are those that cause SARS or MERS. But just because there haven’t been licensed vaccines targeting those viruses doesn’t mean prospects are bad for SARS-CoV-2.
As Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, explained in a Medscape article, scientists did work on creating a SARS vaccine — but interest and funding fell through once it became clear that the epidemic had been contained. For MERS, the primary hurdle for vaccine development is similar, since outbreaks of the disease are uncommon.
“[G]iven the relatively low incidence even in high-risk groups (camel workers, their families, healthcare workers),” she wrote of a MERS vaccine, “trials could need 100,000-plus participants, which isn’t feasible. As a result, there still isn’t a clear path forward for testing a vaccine and getting it approved by regulators.”
The situation with COVID-19 is quite different. Not only has SARS-CoV-2 not been contained in much of the world, but the world is clamoring for a vaccine. More than 160 vaccines are being pursued, according to the WHO.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has explained before that while there is no guarantee of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, there is no reason to think a vaccine cannot be developed, as the coronavirus elicits an immune response and the results from early-phase clinical trials have been positive.
In the “60 Minutes Australia” segment, New York University School of Medicine bioethicist Arthur Caplan is heard saying, “The shortest time anybody’s ever found a vaccine against any disease that I’m familiar with is about seven years. The average time is 20. To be talking about a magic bullet coming in months, it borders on the absurd.”
Caplan, who supports vaccines and has argued for transparency around a COVID-19 vaccine, told us in a phone interview that his appearance in the “Plandemic” video was not sanctioned.
“I think the video is pure anti-vaccine propaganda. The clip of me is completely out of context. They could have asked me if they wanted my views,” he said. “But they didn’t.”
“What I was trying to get across was that we shouldn’t plan on having a vaccine soon, despite some rosy pronouncements from the president and some others,” he said. “And that we better be prepared to continue our social distancing, masking, testing, hand hygiene [and] improving ventilation well into next year.”
A vaccine, Caplan added, “would be a real tool, but it’s not going to replace or eliminate the need for behavioral modifications in dealing with the virus.”
The fastest time for vaccine development is actually four years, not seven, Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told us in an email. Vaccinologist Maurice Hilleman isolated the mumps virus from his daughter in 1963, which led to the licensed Mumpsvax vaccine in 1967. It is still used today as part of the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine.
According to the CDC’s Pink Book, a textbook covering the epidemiology and prevention of vaccine-preventable diseases, there was an earlier mumps vaccine that took just three years to develop, but it wasn’t as effective and was discontinued in the mid-1970s.
Caplan said when he estimated seven years, he was sharing what he was aware of at the time.