Research from the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know has undergirded New York Times reporting on the food system, and outlets ranging from Vanity Fair to the National Review to the Washington Examiner to The Intercept have cited the group’s inquiries into the origins of COVID-19.
But the Oakland-based “truth and transparency” organization’s own provenance has gone largely unexamined, even as public interest and political furor over the controversial lab-leak theory—and the even more broadly disputed notion that the novel coronavirus was the result of engineering—have steadily escalated. However, The Daily Beast found that public documents, including USRTK’s own disclosures, show even as the group does not advocate against vaccines, its roots run into a vitriolically anti-vaccine organization that has promoted conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11 attacks and “The Great Reset.”
That theory posits that pandemic-safety protocols are a prelude to a new global regime of government and corporate control.
Filings with the Internal Revenue Service and the state of California show that USRTK launched in 2014 on a $44,500 grant from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). For the first two years of USRTK’s existence, the Minnesota-based OCA was its lone funder, with contributions swelling as years passed, and totaling more than $1 million in 2021, according to USRTK’s own reporting.
While the self-described “investigative research group” has acquired other contributors, the Organic Consumers Association has far and away remained the largest, with its gifts to USRTK amounting to almost double the sum received from the next biggest donor. The Organic Consumers Association has also been the only organization to grant money to USRTK every year since its inception.
Like USRTK, the 23-year-old Organic Consumers Association began as a group preoccupied with pesticides and genetically modified organisms. But as it gained financial backing from ultra-rich backers in the wellness sector—most notably supplement kingpin Joseph Mercola—it adopted their conspiratorial anti-vaccine views, as The Daily Beast previously reported.
Earlier this year, OCA founder Ronnie Cummins, who has also advanced 9/11 “truther” narratives, co-authored a book with Mercola which purported to expose “The Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal.” The book’s footnotes included multiple citations of USRTK research on COVID-19’s origins and, in promoting the book last month, Cummins referred to USRTK as a “longtime ally.” (Cummins did not respond to a request for comment.)
In late 2020, a USRTK researcher also participated in a Facebook Live event the Organic Consumers Association hosted. “A lot of pieces don’t fit the animal-origin story that’s prevailing,” the USRTK staffer asserted, citing what he described as the virus’s “unusual” qualities.
USRTK co-founder Gary Ruskin, the only staffer at the organization who responded to The Daily Beast’s queries, admitted that he had known Cummins for decades and launched the group with his support. But he insisted his group had nothing to do with his patron’s more controversial views.
“We wanted to start a new organization to stand up for the idea that people have the right to know what's in their food. Ronnie was supportive of this,” Ruskin wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “We don’t work on the issue of vaccines.”
But Cummins’ is hardly the only anti-vaxxer operation with which the group has fraternized.
Public records show the organization has also received considerable financial contributions from the Westreich Foundation. That group, in turn, has bankrolled multiple anti-inoculation groups, including the National Vaccine Information Center, which experts have long called “the most powerful anti-vaccine organization in America.” Until last year, the Westreich Foundation maintained a “Vaccine Safety” page on its website that included false assertions that “immunization is total nonsense” and that vaccine safety is “the greatest lie ever told.”
The only phone number for the Westreich Foundation The Daily Beast could find was disconnected.
Further, though it has not echoed his notorious views on vaccines specifically, USRTK has repeatedly used its platforms to amplify Robert F. Kennedy Jr., perhaps America’s most infamous anti-vaxxer. He has in turn amplified them—particularly on the issue of COVID-19’s origins. This Spring, USRTK research director Carey Gillam published excerpts of her recent book on agrochemical giant Monsanto on Kennedy Jr.’s website, and in June she appeared on his podcast to discuss the issue.
All this time, Gillam has been a regular contributor to The Guardian, where her work has focused on environmental degradation and the food system. In a statement after publication, she told The Daily Beast, “We are not involved in the debate over vaccines; our work related to COVID-19 has focused on using freedom of information laws to obtain documents that speak to the questions about virus origin. We have always disclosed our funders on our web site and it is dishonest for The Daily Beast to pretend it is revealing hidden funder information.”
Guardian U.S. editor John Mulholland did not respond to requests for comment, and Ruskin dodged questions about Gillam’s decision to collaborate with Kennedy Jr., who the Center for Countering Digital Hate identified as one of the biggest purveyors of COVID-19 falsehoods on the Internet.
“Robert Kennedy has lots of views about lots of things,” Ruskin wrote. “I don’t really follow them all especially closely.”
Dr. David Gorski of Wayne State University, who first identified USRTK as an “arm” of the Organic Consumers Association on the blog Science-Based Medicine in 2016, argued that the two nonprofits share a similar set of obsessions: namely, perceived tampering with nature. He argued USRTK took reasonable distrust of corporations and righteous calls for accountability to an extreme, tipping into “pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.”
"They started primarily as anti-GMO and anti-pesticide of any kind, and definitely into various conspiracy theories about Monsanto, [herbicide] glyphosate, etcetera. And that was primarily how I knew them,” Gorski said. "What’s fascinating is how fast they’ve pivoted to COVID nonsense.”
But Gorski also posited the group’s intensifying interest in the widely dismissed notion that COVID-19 sprang from so-called “gain-of-function” experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a natural evolution from USRTK’s original mission.
"Think of it this way: if you come from a belief system where genetically manipulating organisms is dangerous, and it’s the goal of the corporations to exploit and harm and exploit us,” he said,” a group like that would be very much attracted to the idea that this horrible, deadly disease came from humans manipulating coronaviruses.”
Dr. Kathleen Jamieson, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a recent article on conspiracists’ exploitation of uncertainty in COVID-19 science, noted USRTK’s work flattens out crucial differences between the lab-leak theory with the notion that the virus was artificially modified. She pointed to a USRTK report that contrasted a scientific article’s claim—“There is currently no credible evidence to support the claim that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a laboratory-engineered CoV”—with a private email the group obtained in which one of the same article’s authors wrote, “We cannot rule out the possibility that it comes from a bat virus leaked out of a lab.”
In fact, Jamieson noted, these claims do not contradict each other at all. Some versions of the lab-leak hypothesis have suggested that scientists at the Wuhan lab were studying a naturally occurring coronavirus in bats there, and failed to observe proper safety precautions—not that they created the pathogen in a petri dish.
“The difference between there being ‘lab origin’ and the virus being genetically engineered in the lab is really important,” she asserted. “There’s some slippage across the materials you sent me between lab origin and the claim of it being genetically engineered.”
Jamieson argued USRTK’s work deserved scrutiny because of its funding and affiliations. But she also noted that the organization’s published research stopped short of open conspiracy theorizing on the virus’ origins.
"Their language is not the traditional language of conspiracy theorists,” Jamieson told The Daily Beast. “My definition of a conspiracy theory is that there are powerful individuals of malign intent who are covering up.”
But this may have to do with USRTK’s role in what Callum Hood, research director at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, suggests amounts to a larger anti-science/anti-vaccine “ecosystem.” While Mercola and Cummins’ group may indulge in wild speculation about nefarious international plots, other organizations like Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense and USRTK strive to maintain a respectable sheen.
“The role of some of the players in that ecosystem is trying to maintain a more professional and trustworthy looking exterior,” Hood said. "Children’s Health Defense is one of those which sort of goes to great lengths to look trustworthy, and U.S. Right to Know also appears to be trying to present itself as a trustworthy investigative organization.”
The real target of proponents of the gain-of-function theory, Hood asserted, is Dr. Anthony Fauci. And, going by repeated explosive exchanges between Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Fauci over government funding of groups engaged in gain-of-function research, they are hitting their target.
Some of Rand’s most recent verbal fusillades came after The Intercept published documents detailing U.S. grants to an organization that collaborated with the Wuhan lab. Although in this case USRTK did not provide the documents, as it had for past Intercept pieces, Ruskin himself donated a quote.
“This is a road map to the high-risk research that could have led to the current pandemic,” he told the left-leaning outlet.
The Intercept’s reporters did not respond to requests for comment. Likewise most of the journalists or news organizations The Daily Beast contacted for this piece did not respond or declined to comment. Those who did requested anonymity in order to speak freely, and attested that they did not know about the depth USRTK’s relationship with fringe groups when they accepted its assistance, and maintained they independently verified the authenticity of materials the group sent them.
Ruskin, for his part, denied promoting pseudoscience and conspiracies, and insisted his group had not conflated the lab-leak hypothesis with the bioengineering theory.
“We stand by our work,” he said, noting the group has published material in peer-reviewed journals. “We talk with lots of people about our work, but we don’t work on vaccines.”
Meanwhile Jamieson, the communications professor and conspiracy theory expert, argued that uncertainty about COVID-19’s origins—and conspiracy theories—will fester so long as Chinese authorities continue to resist an open investigation. What is necessary, she argued, is transparency from government actors and investigations that do not begin with presuppositions about how the virus emerged.
“There are legitimate, important questions here that need to be answered,” she said. "In the absence of certainty of the origins, not finding the host animal for example, or host entity, through which the virus jumped to the human population, you're going to have alternative causes posited, and those alternative causes are going to include some that will suggest malign intent by powerful actors who are covering up what they actually did."