GOP lawmakers, again, convene a COVID hearing chock full of misinformation

For the second time in five months, Republican state lawmakers listened intently and offered no pushback during a day-long special hearing at the Arizona Senate billed as examining the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that was instead rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation and fear-mongering around vaccines and public health.

In May, the Novel Coronavirus Southwestern Intergovernmental Committee featured testimony from a group of supposed health experts who spread myriad misinformation about vaccines and the pandemic during the committee’s time. On Friday, the committee convened again, bringing some of the same people to speak. 

The committee had previously faced criticism for its awkward name, which has been promoted in abbreviated form by the QAnon-friendly political nonprofit The America Project. The abbreviated name, NCSWIC, is a commonly used abbreviation in the QAnon world, where it means “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming,” alluding to predictions of arrests and executions of members of the “deep state.” 

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Although the official name of the panel spells the word “southwestern” correctly, the committee was listed as “NCSWIC” on the Arizona Legislature’s website and the abbreviation was used by outside boosters. 

The Republican elected officials on the panel were state Sens. T.J. Shope and Janae Shamp, the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee; state Rep. Steve Montenegro, who chairs the state House of Representatives’ Health and Human Services Committee; and U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs, Eli Crane and Paul Gosar. 

While the state legislators were in attendance, Biggs, Crane and Gosar only appeared electronically and delivered pre-recorded video addresses. All three were in Washington, D.C., Friday as Republicans are locked in a fight over who should lead the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’s disheartening to see Arizona’s elected officials once again provide a platform for spreading dangerous disinformation about vaccines for children,” Becky Christensen, founder and state campaigns director of SAFE Communities Coalition, the nation’s first pro-vaccine political advocacy organization, said in a statement to the Arizona Mirror. “Public health should be guided by fact-based information, not misinformation. Their actions undermine efforts to safeguard our communities.” 

Christensen added that lawmakers should seek “responsible and informed discourse” to help better guide public health decisions. 

Misinformation returns

Dr. Peter McCoullough once again boldly proclaimed that the COVID-19 virus came from a lab in Wuhan, China. There is no consensus on the origin of the virus.

McCoullough is known for spreading unfounded claims, especially around the origins of the virus. He previously has stated that he believed the pandemic was “planned” and has promoted the QAnon conspiracy film “Plandemic.”  

McCoullough has become a darling to those in both QAnon and the broader conspiracy world, appearing regularly on shows like the one hosted by conspiracy theorist Stew Peters, who said the COVID vaccine is a “bioweapon.” Peters also was behind multiple QAnon conspiracy documentaries that made dubious claims about the vaccine, including that it included snake venom. 

McCoullough has also appeared on disgraced retired Gen. Michael Flynn’s “Reawaken America” tour, where he has denounced drag shows and gender identity issues. 

During Friday’s hearing, McCoullough spread even more falsehoods around COVID-19 and vaccine efficacy. 

“It is called ‘turbo cancer’ for a reason,” McCoullough said, adding that he believes it is “theoretically possible” that multiple vaccines “could be related to cancer.” 

The term “turbo cancer” comes from people who have spread false information about the COVID vaccine, attempting to link it to an aggressive form of cancer. There is no established link between the vaccine and cancer, and studies have found either no association or found a decreased risk of lymphoma. 

McCoullough also continued to spread a false claim that 17 million people have been killed by the vaccine. The notion comes from a highly flawed analysis of data claiming that mortality rates were spiking because of the vaccine. McCoullough also spread other similar claims, such as saying that more than 500,000 people in the United States were killed by the vaccine, an idea based on a misrepresentation of United Kingdom data

And McCoullough appeared to make claims that alluded to a conspiracy theory widely adopted by QAnon adherents, which was featured in a discredited film, claiming that blood clots found in people’s bodies were caused by the COVID vaccine. 

The film, “Died Suddenly,” suggests it is all part of a shadowy plot to depopulate the world. But experts who have examined the film’s claims have said that many of the clots appear to be post-mortem clots. Cases of clots caused by the vaccine are “very rare,” according to one study that found only approximately 1,000 cases out of 2 million. The movie also featured incidents that occurred before the pandemic in 2020, but presented them as consequences of vaccination.

A member of the panel also has a direct connection to the conspiracy film. 

Dr. Peter Chambers, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, appears in the film speaking about the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database, or DMED, which he claimed showed a spike in medical conditions in the military which he attributed to COVID-19 vaccines. 

Chambers’ claim has been debunked since 2021 by multiple fact-checkers

The former military doctor is also a believer in the debunked conspiracy theory that 5G cellular technology is connected to the COVID-19 virus. Chambers also was part of a failed lawsuit seeking to prevent the military from implementing a COVID vaccine mandate

Chambers’ presentation to the committee included a slide that referred to the “globalists.”

The globalist conspiracy theory is a far-right conspiracy theory with roots in antisemitism and is also often connected to the idea of a “New World Order” and a one-world government, most often with the Jewish people at the center of the conspiracy. Peters, the conspiracy theory talk show host and the man behind “Died Suddenly,” frequently works with antisemites and white supremacists. Chambers has also been supported by the America Project, which boosted the hearing and helped fund the Arizona Senate’s partisan “audit” of the 2020 election. 

Also returning to the committee was Aaron Siri, an attorney who is most well known for his work with an organization called the Informed Consent Action Network, or ICAN. 

ICAN has been on the frontlines of anti-vaccine misinformation and is led by Del Bigtree, a television and film producer who has become an anti-vaccine activist. ICAN was listed as one of the “key organizations” tied to the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “The Disinformation Dozen,” the anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about COVID vaccines. Chambers mentioned that he worked with Bigtree on anti-vaccine issues. 

Siri claimed that “you can’t say vaccines have reduced chronic health issues” among children. 

“I’m not saying vaccines cause those,” he said, sharing a misleading claim on chronic illness in children. “Something is definitely going on.” 

The committee also heard from Arizona resident Calli Varner, who claimed that she had a stroke due to the COVID vaccine

Varner had an ischemic stroke when a blood-clot made its way to her brain. Strokes have been on the rise in younger populations, with doctors theorizing that one cause could be patent foramen ovale, which is present in between 24 to 40% of the population and generally goes unnoticed. 

Varner told the committee that she has had various health problems develop, including an autoimmune issue, since she got vaccinated. McCoullough said he had been consulting with the Scottsdale resident about her experience and used the opportunity to say that strokes, infertility and immune disorders are being caused by the vaccine. 

Studies have shown that those who contracted COVID-19 have an increased risk of stroke, while those who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and did not contract COVID -19 have “no difference in stroke risk.” There is also no evidence that the vaccine causes infertility and no conclusive evidence to suggest a link between the vaccine and autoimmune disorders. 

McCoullough also once again spoke about the scientifically unsound plan to help people remove spike proteins from people’s bodies. 

Shamp, a former nurse who has claimed she was fired because she refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine, came up with the idea for the hearing and those in attendance applauded her for putting it together. 

Shamp, who was present during the events of Jan. 6, has spread a multitude of QAnon conspiracy theories online for years, including a post with “NCSWIC” in it. Shamp said at the end of the hearing Friday that another one will be happening “sometime in December.”

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