- Top anti-vaccine advocacy groups received PPP funding from the Trump administration, The Washington Post reported.
- American distrust in the safety of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to pose a threat to public health.
- K. “Vish” Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider that anti-vaccine groups are “likely to perpetuate the adverse impacts of the pandemic.”
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Five top anti-vaccine advocacy organizations that have spread medical misinformation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic received funding from the Trump administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), The Washington Post reported Monday.
The loans from the Small Business Administration totaled more than $850,000, according to the report.
K. “Vish” Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider that to call the loans ironic “doesn’t do justice to my feelings.” He said anti-vaccine groups are “likely to perpetuate the adverse impacts of the pandemic.”
The groups that reportedly received PPP funding were the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), Mercola Com Health Resources LLC, Informed Consent Action Network, Children’s Health Defense Co., and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, The Post reported, citing an exclusive report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a UK-based advocacy group that fights hate and misinformation online.
“Lending money to these organizations so they can prosper is a sickening use of taxpayer money,” Countering Digital Hate CEO Imran Ahmed told The Washington Post. “These groups are actively working to undermine the national COVID vaccination drive, which will create long-term health problems that are felt most acutely in minority communities and low-income neighborhoods.”
The largest loan – $335,000 – was given to Mercola, a website published by the anti-vaccine activist Joseph Mercola. NewsGuard, a nonprofit that tracks misinformation, reported that the site has “published false claims about standard medical practices such as vaccinations.”
Mercola, a businessman and doctor of osteopathic medicine, is himself a major donor of the NVIC. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that Mercola gave the NVIC $2.9 million, making up roughly 40% of the group’s funding. Mercola has millions of followers on Facebook.
Amazon has been criticized for including the NVIC in its Amazon Smile program, contributing $40,000 in donations to the group.
A study released last summer found that vaccines are safer than “almost any other modern medical intervention.” But, as medical misinformation has continued to spread at a dangerous pace on social media amid the pandemic, public health experts have said that distrust for the US government and healthcare system poses a challenge in its rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
The Pew Research Center said in a December report that about 39% of Americans said they would definitely not, or probably not, get the vaccine. 21% of American adults surveyed said they were “pretty certain” that new information about COVID-19 vaccination would not change their minds.
Anti-vaccine advocacy groups have played a major role in propagating that distrust, Viswanath said.
Even if these groups qualified for the loans legally – as the Small Business Administration told The Washington Post – it’s a question of whether the loans are “morally” correct, Viswanath said, as they are providing the country with “additional ammunition” to question medical professionals “by exploiting the tremendous scientific achievement of developing the vaccines.”