She’s a doctor, an anti-vaxxer, and, according to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a “conspiracy theorist” who is trying to “spread myths and falsehoods about Covid vaccines.” Now, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has invited her to share her thoughts on a coronavirus vaccine with the Senate.
Dr. Jane Orient isn’t just any old anti-vaccine activist, though. She’s the head of the arch-conservative Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), an organization that’s become the hard right’s go-to source for a conservative spin on everything from vaccines, masks, Obamacare, and hydroxychloroquine to whether Hillary Clinton was “neurologically disabled” during the 2016 campaign.
Orient is the only paid adviser listed on 2018 IRS filings for the American Health Legal Foundation, the nonprofit arm of AAPS which files advocacy lawsuits, and she is set to appear Tuesday in front of the Senate committee to talk about early outpatient treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The New York Times was the first to report on her upcoming testimony.
Orient, who received her medical degree from Columbia University, spoke with The Daily Beast at length in a telephone interview Monday.
“The goal is to raise questions about the role of the government in suppressing or discouraging or forbidding long established approved drugs for early outpatient treatment of the virus,” Orient said of her testimony. “The media has been hyping and saying if you take that evil drug [hydroxychloroquine] you may die and go blind. And yet the evidence says it acts as a protective measure.”
She added, “The vaccine has unquestionably been rushed. The manufacturers, the government, just people… are very desperate.”
Her remarks come as states across the country scramble to contain increasingly dire infection, hospitalization, and death rates, and as the federal government tries to boost confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine which is set to begin to be distributed as early as next week.
“If we weren’t obstructing there would be so much less pressure on the vaccine and we wouldn’t need to cut corners on the testing of the vaccine,” Orient said.
Some of the government’s leading scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who will become President-elect Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, have said previously that trials have “consistently” shown that hydroxychloroquine is “not effective” in treating coronavirus infections and that the drug can carry significant risk if prescribed in the wrong setting. Orient was adamant that those fears are overblown.
“One hundred thousand people may have died needlessly [during the pandemic],” Orient said. “There is all of this posturing that we need to be scientific. Well, there’s been about 70 years of safety information about hydroxychloroquine. And there have been large numbers of studies done that may not meet the high standard of high control trials but that show some benefit of hydroxychloroquine early in the disease along with zinc.”
Orient, without evidence, accused doctors of halting the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat patients in part because of Trump’s promotion of the drug as a possible therapeutic in the treatment of the virus.
“[Trump] wasn’t exactly touting it… he was mentioning it as a possible game changer and people came out against it just because he said it,” Orient said. “So now doctors are telling patients ‘we don’t treat COVID. We will give you a test and if it is positive, lock yourself in a room and call the emergency room if you can’t breath.’” Patients are sick and dying unnecessarily.”
To be sure, health officials working on the federal government’s response to COVID-19 say many hospitals stopped using hydroxychloroquine because the drug wasn’t effective in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. But Orient was adamant that doctors’ widespread rebuke of the drug is tied to not only President Trump’s public remarks but also some larger conspiracy by opportunists in the medical industry, including some of those in the federal government.
“One could make the observation that there are huge financial interests involved here in selling the new drug Remdesivir or vaccines that are novel that are planned to be rushed into production,” Orient said. “Some of these companies hope to make $15 billion in profits. There are conflicts of interest in federal bureaucracies, too, with consultants, grants, new employment possibilities, stock options. The CDC makes a lot of money from vaccines. The CDC conflicts of interest go back a long way.”
AAPS has a long history of circulating dicey and downright dangerous theories, particularly on the issue of vaccines. The website claims it does not oppose vaccines but the site has consistently pushed anti-vaxxers’ false claims about a nonexistent link between vaccines and childhood autism.
In 2006, AAPS’ in-house journal, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, published a study from Dr. Mark Geier and his son, David, claiming to show that autism rates went down after pharmaceutical companies removed mercury preservatives from their products. At the time, Dr. Geier worked as a professional witness in vaccine-related lawsuits and had run afoul of judges and a court who criticized him for acting as a witness “in areas for which he has no training, expertise, and experience.”
In 2012, health authorities in Maryland revoked his medical license after an investigation by the Chicago Tribune found Geier and his son promoting a hormone inhibitor used for chemical castration in sex offenders as a treatment for autistic children.
But even as scientists and academic journals thoroughly debunked anti-vaccine studies claiming a link to autism, AAPS stuck with the discredited theory. In a 2016 piece on vaccination, AAPS claimed “there are hundreds of reports of children who stopped making eye contact and lost language skills soon after receiving MMR” and quoted Orient saying that it’s “not unreasonable to suspect that MMR is one” of the causes of increased rates of autism diagnosis in children.
In the months before a COVID-19 vaccine was announced, AAPS cast doubt on the value of masks—widely cited by public health authorities as crucial to mitigating the coronavirus.
In an October opinion piece, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose state has suffered one of the worst coronavirus death rates in the world, cited an AAPS “fact sheet” to raise questions about the effectiveness of masks against the virus. The “mask facts” page highlighted research that falsely claimed mask use “will not be effective at preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission” and that it will make schools “a threatening and unsafe environment” which could produce “psychological damage in children.”
When President Trump began to champion the use of the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 miracle drug, AAPS, like many conservative organizations, took up the drug as a cause. The group filed a lawsuit against the FDA for restricting usage of the hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 patients and cheered on Republicans like Sens. Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz who criticized the agency’s restrictions.
Before the pandemic, AAPS reliably championed conservative health causes—fighting against the Affordable Care Act, tobacco taxes, Medicare, and Medicaid— nd criticized Democratic presidential candidates like former President Barack Obama (for using “neurolinguistic programming” in speeches) and Hillary Clinton (who Dr. Orient concluded could be “neurologically disabled” during the 2016 campaign, according to Breitbart).
Over the years AAPS has enjoyed close relationships with Republican members of Congress who have promoted its work and invited staff to testify in congressional hearings. Sen. Rand Paul, a member of the Homeland Security committee Orient will appear before, isn’t just a fan of AAPS, he’s been a member for decades.
The appreciation is not shared by Senate Democrats, including Schumer, who called the invitation for Orient to testify “downright dangerous and one of the last things Senate Republicans should be doing right now,” according to the Times.