Millions of Americans have been exposed to “Plandemic,” a 22-minute conspiracy theory documentary about the coronavirus that racked up millions of views on Facebook and YouTube before it was banned from both sites.
In the video, controversial scientist Dr. Judy Mikovits, a close associate of anti-vaccine activists, weaves an elaborate tale alleging a government conspiracy to create the coronavirus, with Anthony Fauci as a kind of murderous puppetmaster behind it all. Along the way, she claims that masks “activate” the virus, and that she was imprisoned as part of a cover-up.
“Plandemic” has already become a major success for its creator, New-Age producer Mikki Willis.
The video has been endorsed by actress Kirstie Allie, popular Southern comedian Darren Knight, and MMA stars Tito Ortiz and Alex Reid. The hashtag #Plandemic became a trending topic on Twitter, as people praised the video—or complained of friends and relatives who had been duped by it. As of Thursday, Mikovits’s book slamming Fauci, Plague of Corruption, was the #1 book on the Amazon bestseller charts.
But experts say the allegations Mikovits lays out in the interview with Willis don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny.
“She’s basically latched onto the anti-Fauci stuff, and came up with this story that sounds really dubious,” said Dr. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist who blogs about medical disinformation and has dubbed Mikovits a “COVID-19” grifter.
That hasn’t stopped “Plandemic” from becoming a social media hit, embraced by QAnon conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine groups and various conservative activists. Versions of “Plandemic” were among the top social media results for search terms like “Fauci” and “COVID-19” on Wednesday and Thursday, with three versions of the video engaged with more than 8.4 million times on Facebook alone, according to social media analytics site BuzzSumo.
YouTube banned the video on Wednesday, saying in a statement to The Daily Beast that it violated the site’s rules on COVID-19. On Thursday, Facebook followed suit and banned “Plandemic” over Mikovits’s claim that masks somehow spread the virus.
“Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm, so we're removing the video,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
Mikovits and Willis didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The initial minutes of “Plandemic” are devoted to bolstering Mikovits’s scientific bona fides, calling her “one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation.” But the article that “Plandemic” claims cemented Mikovits’s reputation—a “blockbuster article” in Science—in fact was a hotly disputed study that was eventually retracted by the journal.
“Whenever you hear Mikovits mentioned, she’s described as a great scientist, or one of the most promising scientists of her generation,” Gorski told The Daily Beast. “Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”
In 2009, Mikovits, the research director at Nevada’s Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease—a job she picked up after a stint bartending at a yacht club—published a paper in Science claiming that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was caused by the retrovirus XMRV. The claim initially offered hope for sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the cause or causes of which remain unclear.
But the research quickly fell apart, and Science retracted the article in 2011. Scientists now believe Mikovits’s supposed findings were just the results of contamination in her lab.
“What she thought she had found was actually contamination of samples,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a co-founder of science research blog Retraction Watch. “She found that there was a virus present in samples taken from mice with this condition, but it just happened to be that the virus was there. It didn’t prove anything.”
Rather than accept the retraction, Mikovits began to portray the failure of her research as proof that the medical establishment was engaged in a conspiracy against her.
“If you look at her trajectory, it’s this kind of trajectory that we have seen at Retraction Watch, when someone tries to flip the script,” Oransky said. “‘No, it’s not that my research was flawed, and that I was wrong, it’s this big conspiracy theory again.’”
By then, however, Mikovits had a bigger problem: a criminal charge.
In “Plandemic,” her November 2011 arrest is portrayed as punishment from the powers-that-be for pursuing potentially damning research about viruses. It’s accompanied by videos of a SWAT team raiding a house that’s presented as footage of Mikovits’s arrest. But the news footage company that actually shot the footage has denounced “Plandemic,” saying the video is actually from an unrelated SWAT raid.
“What did they charge you with?” Willis asks in the video.
“Nothing,” Mikovits says.
In fact, however, Mikovits was charged with theft after notebooks and other materials disappeared from the Whittemore Peterson Institute after she left. The charges were eventually dropped, after the institute’s wealthy backer was charged with making illegal contributions to a federal official. At the time, a prosecutor complained that case against Mikovits’s former employer created “witness issues.”
Since the arrest and retraction of her paper, Mikovits has drifted closer to anti-vaccine circles. While she claims in “Plandemic” that she isn’t herself against vaccines, Mikovits has co-authored two books with anti-vaccine blogger Kent Heckenlively. Her most recent book also features a foreword from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading promoter of the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism.
“She’s joining up with all of these other conspiracy theorists, and taking part in various online forums and just sowing these seeds of doubt about the safety of vaccines,” said Amy Pisani, the executive director of pro-vaccine group Vaccinate Your Family.
After her arrest and high-profile retraction, Mikovits started up a years-long, one-sided feud with Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading figure in the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.
In a 2014 book, Mikovits claims Fauci threatened to have her arrested if she tried to participate in a National Institutes of Health study to validate her retracted study. In “Plandemic,” she claims that Fauci berated her in 1984 in an attempt to steal HIV research.
“He started screaming at me and said ‘Give us the paper right now or you’ll be fired for insubordination!’” Mikovits says in the video.
Retraction Watch’s Oransky, who has followed Mikovits’s career for nearly a decade, says he hasn’t seen any proof besides Mikovits’s own allegations that her claims against Fauci are true.
“There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of what she says about him interfering with her work is true,” Oransky said.
In “Plandemic,” Mikovits goes a step further, claiming that the coronavirus was somehow cooked up in collusion between United States government labs and Chinese researchers. A narrator voice-over suggests Fauci was somehow involved in the scheme.
A Health and Human Services spokesman who represents Fauci declined to comment to The Daily Beast. But in 2018, Fauci addressed Mikovits’s claims in an email to debunking website Snopes, denying her accusations and saying he had found no proof of the supposed email where he threatened to have her arrested.
“I have no idea what she is talking about,” Fauci wrote.
Still, Mikovits’s grudge against Fauci has been embraced in the coronavirus era by Trump fans and coronavirus truthers, who reject the doctor’s dire pronouncements about the virus.
“The beauty of that one is there’s almost zero way of disproving it,” Gorski said.
Mikovits makes other bizarre claims that are barely remarked upon in the documentary. She says that lockdown orders closing beaches have cut people off from “healing microbes” in the ocean.
She claims that AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer called Fauci the “Bernie Madoff of science”—a quote The Daily Beast could find no other record of. After a contentious relationship during the HIV epidemic, Fauci and Kramer are now friends.
At one point, Mikovits claims that she “taught” Ebola cells in a U.S. Army laboratory at Fort Detrick how to infect human cells in 1999, effectively saying that she weaponized the disease against humans.
“Ebola couldn’t infect human cells until we took them in the laboratories and taught them,” Mikovits.
If accurate, that would mean that Mikovits is partially responsible for 11,300 deaths from the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak alone. But her claim doesn’t make any sense, because the first recorded cases of human Ebola infection were recorded 23 years earlier, in 1976. The Daily Beast was not able to verify that Mikovits worked at the laboratory.
And she makes the bizarre argument that wearing a mask somehow makes a person more susceptible to the virus.
“Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus,” Mikovits said. “You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions.”
“Plandemic” throws out so many false claims in its 22 minutes that it’s difficult for a lay viewer to keep track of what’s true, according to Gorski.
“You just shoot so much misinformation out there that it blasts you back,” Gorski said.
Willis has a history of his own that suggests he isn’t rigorously committed to scientific accuracy in his films.
He’s produced a series of New Age documentaries, including one starring former Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson and another about psychedelic drugs. But in one of his latest documentary projects, “Be Brave: The True Story of Daniel Northcott,” he posits that Northcott, a deceased filmmaker, contracted leukemia because he stole a cursed bone from a Mayan gravesite.
“No one will ever know if that object held a curse,” a narrator intones in a trailer for the film.
After going viral in 2015 for a video in which he defended his son for playing with a doll, Willis has turned to posting edgier family-themed videos on Facebook like “5 YEAR OLD CRACKS EPSTEIN CASE! (share if you care),” in which Willis’s 5-year-old son says that wealthy pedophile Jeffrey Epstein was murdered.
“Plandemic” has even been denounced by two doctors who are cited in the film as experts. Bakersfield, California urgent care doctors Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi have become stars on Fox News for their claims that the virus is less lethal than the common cold—data that is itself easily disproven.
But even Erickson and Massihi want nothing to do with “Plandemic,” which extensively uses footage of them criticizing the scientific consensus on coronavirus. In a statement posted on Instagram, the doctors distance themselves from the viral video.
“The creator of this film never asked to use our footage and has skewed our study and interviews to fit their agenda, which we do not agree with, nor appreciate,” they write. “We are not interested in being associated with the conspiracy theory against the current administration.”
Despite the numerous factual errors in “Plandemic” and Mikovits’s own spotty track record as a researcher, the video has turned the doctor into a star among coronavirus skeptics—and members of the public who have been fooled by the slickly produced footage.
“It pays to be a COVID-19 conspiracy theorist,” Gorski said. “Before she glommed onto COVID-19, she was a second- or third-string anti-vaccine crank. And now look!”