Bret Weinstein's Covid Agenda

Bret sees himself in a heroic struggle against demonetization and demonization, but what he's actually doing is building a powerful "just asking questions" brand of conspiratorial musing.

On June 28, Bret Weinstein announced that “YouTube just demonetized both DarkHorse channels, wiping out more than half our family income. Their message: Drop the science and stick to the narrative—or else.” DarkHorse is Weinstein’s podcast, the “science” is promotion of alternative Covid treatments and vaccine skepticism, and the “narrative” is an all-purpose concept that Weinstein increasingly uses to describe public health agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), major media outlets, and a huge cross-section of other institutions in the public and private sectors that are allegedly trying to suppress vital health information about the pandemic.

Consider ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug used to treat helminthiases, scabies, and other tropical diseases. According to Weinstein, it’s also a drug that could “drive SARS‑CoV‑2 to extinction”—that is, if information about it wasn’t being relentlessly suppressed. During a recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience alongside Dr. Pierre Kory, Weinstein argued that “ivermectin shows itself to be about 86 percent effective at preventing contraction of Covid.” He continued: “If you get 70 percent of the population to take the prophylaxis … that level of prophylaxis is more than sufficient by a lot to drive this to extinction.” In other words, a widely available, cheap, safe drug that’s commonly used in the United States to treat or prevent parasites in animals might be a miracle cure for the deadliest pandemic in a century. “The tool you need is right in front of you,” Weinstein claims. It’s a “gift to humanity,” gushes Kory. And yet, ivermectin hasn’t been approved by the FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO) says it should “only be used within clinical trials,” and many other regulatory agencies say the same.

It’s impossible to overstate Kory’s enthusiasm for ivermectin: he believes it’s “showing really strong efficacy” in alleviating the symptoms of “long Covid” (long-term effects of the disease such as fatigue and brain fog)—the first patient he treated with long Covid symptoms was, according to Kory, “crying for joy.” He says ivermectin is anti-viral and anti-inflammatory, and that it improves “post-vaccine syndromes.” When Rogan asked if ivermectin is effective against Covid variants, Kory jumped in: “We do know this epidemiologically—if you look at India, lots of Delta variant. From looking at the epidemiology of what happened there, ivermectin was slaying the Delta variant. South Africa and Zimbabwe, especially Zimbabwe—when they were getting hurt earlier in this year—they basically eradicated Covid with widespread adoption of ivermectin. They were dealing with the South African variant.” How about the P.1 variant in Brazil? “Totally susceptible to ivermectin,” Kory says. And the U.K. variant? “Same thing,” according to Kory. At this point, Rogan said, “This sounds like a gigantic ivermectin infomercial, sponsored by ivermectin.” But he instantly reeled in those suspicions: “This is one of the best examples of something that—it’s almost too good to be true, but turns out actually to be true.”

Is it true? Not according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which reports that there’s “insufficient data … to recommend either for or against the use of ivermectin for the treatment of Covid-19.” David Fajgenbaum is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the CORONA Project, which stands for “Covid-19 Registry of Off-label & New Agents”—an effort to “identify and track all treatments reported to be used for Covid-19 in an open-source data repository.” In an interview with Stat, Fajgenbaum explained why the idea that ivermectin is a Covid-slaying wonder drug—based largely on what he says were “some really exciting and promising retrospective observational studies”—does, in fact, seem too good to be true:

There were actually a number of Latin American countries where large numbers of the population were given ivermectin. And then there were subsequent declines in the numbers of cases of patients in those particular cities. And again, the assumption is made that it’s the drug that is actually improving outcomes. But we can’t make that assumption because there are other public health measures that can also cause your infection rates to go down, like social distancing and masking. And so you can’t just assume because people were taking it and the rates went down, that it’s the drug. And so that’s where you have to do large, randomized controlled trials.

One of the medications that Weinstein and Kory repeatedly attacked—remdesivir, which the FDA has approved to treat Covid—demonstrated its effectiveness in several randomized controlled clinical trials, which found that the drug hastened recovery time and improved symptoms. Regulatory bodies around the world recommend a similar standard of evidence be applied to the authorization of ivermectin. There are data which support the use of ivermectin to treat Covid, but those data come nowhere near justifying the sweeping claims Kory makes about its miraculous properties and efficacy.

Weinstein and Kory suggest that the demand for more and better data is part of a vast conspiracy involving public health agencies, the pharmaceutical industry, and the media to discredit one of the most promising Covid treatments in the world. Kory condemns what he describes as the “gods of science and knowledge” (mainstream institutions that haven’t authorized or endorsed ivermectin) as corrupt entities that have been “captured” and “hijacked” by forces that don’t care about the public good: “It’s almost like you’re in a plane emergency, right? And the plane is crashing, like we’re in an emergency right now. And everyone’s saying, ‘Listen to the captain. You have to listen to the captain’s instructions—don’t listen to anyone else, but listen to the captain. And no one’s considering: what if the hijackers already got the captain? … That’s what it seems like here: we’re listening to hijackers.” Weinstein added: “Yeah, or your house is on fire and there’s a bucket of water and somebody stops you from using it because you haven’t proved it’s water. Something is not adding up here.”

If ivermectin is so effective, you’d think Weinstein and Kory would be thrilled that Oxford University is including the drug in its PRINCIPLE (Platform Randomized Trial of Treatments in the Community for Epidemic and Pandemic Illnesses) trial, the “world’s largest clinical trial of possible COVID-19 treatments for recovery at home and in other non-hospital settings.” Oxford professor Chris Butler is the joint chief investigator of the trial, and he issued a statement about the decision to include ivermectin:

Ivermectin is readily available globally, has been in wide use for many other infectious conditions so it’s a well-known medicine with a good safety profile, and because of the early promising results in some studies it is already being widely used to treat Covid-19 in several countries. By including ivermectin in a large-scale trial like PRINCIPLE, we hope to generate robust evidence to determine how effective the treatment is against Covid-19, and whether there are benefits or harms associated with its use.

Butler hardly sounds like one of the establishment disinformation peddlers who’ve been “captured” by anti-ivermectin “hijackers.” Weinstein and Kory constantly urge their audiences to follow the science, so surely they’re excited to take part in discussions about an Oxford study of ivermectin, right?

On July 1, the Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), Kory’s outfit, and an organization called British Ivermectin Recommendation Development (the BiRD Group) published an open letter to Butler and Professor Richard Hobbs, the lead investigators of the PRINCIPLE trial. The letter expresses “serious and urgent concerns about the randomized controlled trial of ivermectin which you are about to begin in the U.K.” Incredibly, Kory and his co-author Dr. Tess Lawrie (of the BiRD Group) argue that no more research on ivermectin needs to be conducted: “It is puzzling to understand why a trial of ivermectin would even be necessary, given the preponderance of peer-reviewed scientific evidence that has been published across the globe.” Kory and Lawrie also argue that it’s “profoundly unethical to mount a trial designed to withhold efficacious treatment from any trial subject since it is quite possible that participants in the control arm could worsen or die without it.” On Rogan’s podcast, Kory said his “dream” is to see ivermectin in every medicine cabinet in the world—he’s ready for the research to stop and the mass distribution campaign to begin (a project which, he says, has already attracted a few wealthy donors). By comparison, research into the efficacy and safety of the Covid vaccines, which we’ll return to shortly, is ongoing.

Here’s what Weinstein had to say about the PRINCIPLE trial: “The Oxford study looks designed to return weak, positive results allowing the ridiculous current narrative to move to higher ground while killing public interest in ivermectin and preserving the EUAs on which Big Pharma’s Covid portfolio depends. Everyone wins, except the public.” He also echoes Kory and Lawrie: “Collecting more evidence is great. But current evidence is more than strong enough to administer this very safe drug to patients for whom no useful alternative exists. Awaiting more evidence is a delaying tactic.”

To Weinstein, the efficacy of ivermectin is so clear that it can be compared to water putting out a fire. He frequently hedges by pointing out that the data around ivermectin are “noisy,” but he nonetheless emphasizes the fact that it has a “strong signal of efficacy” and “works both as a treatment and as a prophylaxis.” He even ostensibly took the drug live on his show. According to Weinstein, when he makes arguments for ivermectin, the responses are “maddening”: “If it isn’t a large-scale randomized control trial,” his opponents allegedly say, “then it isn’t evidence to me. And it’s like: only a crazy person would say that in this case.” When a randomized trial is underway, however, he cries foul while Kory denounces the study as pointless and unethical. Of course, there’s another medical solution to Covid which has proven its effectiveness in a series of large-scale randomized control trials. Study after study has found that the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and other manufacturers around the world are extremely effective at preventing the contraction of Covid and mitigating symptoms. These vaccines aren’t buckets of water in a house fire—they’re fire trucks.

In December 2020, The New England Journal of Medicine published a randomized, controlled, blind study in which 21,720 people received the Pfizer vaccine and 21,728 received a placebo. The results were dramatic and unambiguous:

There were eight cases of Covid-19 with onset at least seven days after the second dose among participants assigned to receive BNT162b2 [the technical name of the Pfizer vaccine] and 162 cases among those assigned to placebo; BNT162b2 was 95 percent effective in preventing Covid-19 (95 percent credible interval, 90.3 to 97.6). Similar vaccine efficacy (generally 90 to 100 percent) was observed across subgroups defined by age, sex, race, ethnicity, baseline body-mass index, and the presence of coexisting conditions.

The study also found that “few participants in either group had severe adverse events, serious adverse events, or adverse events leading to withdrawal from the trial.” Adverse events will be monitored for two years after administration of the second dose.

In May 2021, The Lancet published a study that analyzed data from the first four months of Israel’s national vaccination campaign and found that the Pfizer vaccine was more than 95 percent effective against Covid infection, 91.5 percent effective at preventing asymptomatic infection, 97 percent effective against symptomatic infection, over 97 percent effective at preventing hospitalization, over 97 percent effective at preventing “severe or critical Covid-19-related hospitalization,” and 96.7 percent effective against Covid-related death. Other vaccines are similarly effective—Moderna’s mRNA vaccine is over 94 percent effective at preventing Covid infection after the second dose. The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine is 66.3 percent effective, while the AstraZeneca vaccine is 66.7 percent effective, according to a Lancet study which noted that “protection did not wane during [the] initial three-month period. Similarly, antibody levels were maintained during this period with minimal waning by day 90.”

In a study recently accepted for publication in the journal Nature, researchers found that “SARS-CoV-2 mRNA-based vaccination of humans induces a persistent GC B cell response, enabling the generation of robust humoral immunity.” In other words, the vaccines catalyze a persistent immune reaction, which could obviate the need for boosters in the coming years. A recent article in The New York Times cites this research, as well as other promising findings: “Ali Ellebedy, an immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleagues reported last month that immunity might last for years, possibly a lifetime, in people who were infected with the coronavirus and later vaccinated.” Ellebedy and his team found that immune cells were continuing to organize and adapt 15 weeks after mRNA vaccination, which suggests that long-term protection (at least against existing variants) is likely. Although Ellebedy expects non-mRNA vaccines to offer less sustained protection, a study recently published in Britain found that mixing different types of vaccines appears to offer robust protection against Covid. As the Times reports: “Volunteers who got AstraZeneca followed by Pfizer-BioNTech reached antibody levels about as great as in those who got two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech.”

The evidence for the effectiveness of vaccines is overwhelming, but Weinstein still says “I’m vaccine skeptical. And I don’t mean that generally—I’m very enthusiastic about vaccines in a general sense. I’m highly vaccinated. But in this case, I’m worried about a set of vaccines that were sped through this process where their manufacturers have been immunized from liability and where there is a very strong signal that something is not right.” While Kory says he regards ivermectin as a “bridge to” and “safety net for” vaccines, Weinstein believes the drug should be a replacement for vaccination in some cases. For example, he says vaccinating children is “not safe” and suggests ivermectin as an alternative.

Weinstein has a habit of making unsubstantiated alarmist claims about vaccine safety, such as this recent tweet (since deleted):

For months I’ve asked ~everyone I talk to if they’re vaccinated and what their experience was. Nearly all had scary symptoms, some terrifying.

Q: So how could anyone doubt there is a huge ‘adverse event’ signal? A: Most aren’t talking unless asked. Ask around. We have a problem.

Weinstein proceeded to post Twitter messages about alleged adverse effects after taking vaccines: A friend told him about a family member who suffered a “months-long systemic auto-immune reaction that isn’t responding to typical steroid treatment”; someone else revealed that a pregnant friend “had to go to the hospital with severe symptoms” (though the person relaying the story admitted “I cannot exactly recall [the symptoms] right now but it had to do with protein in her spine”); a friend of a friend claimed that the “Pfizer vaccine pissed my immune system off and it attacked my legs. Difficulty walking, needles, stressed muscles, and tremors in both legs. Buyer beware.”

The insistence that a few anecdotes on Twitter constitute evidence that people should be concerned about “terrifying” adverse effects from the vaccines is fantastically irresponsible for someone with a platform as large as Weinstein’s and an audience that’s likely inclined to be vaccine hesitant. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and several other vaccine safety monitoring efforts constitute what the CDC describes as the “most intensive vaccine safety monitoring effort in U.S. history.” Far from recklessly jabbing their populations with no regard for safety, American and European regulators have probably been too cautious when it comes to weighing the risk of adverse effects with the efficacy of the vaccines. In March, the European Union’s vaccination campaign suffered a massive blow when government after government decided to stop distributing the AstraZeneca vaccine due to concerns over a small number of blood clotting cases. A month later, the FDA and CDC recommended a pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when six recipients developed a rare blood clotting disorder. Concerns about blood clotting, pericarditis, and myocarditis persist, but these are subjects for at-risk recipients to discuss with healthcare professionals.

For a responsible discussion of the risks of vaccine-related myocarditis, consider this recent article in Stat by Venkatesh L. Murthy, Vinay Prasad, and Brahmajee K. Nallamothu. The authors observe that the “remarkable development and rollout of Covid-19 vaccines will be hailed as a triumph of science,” but they caution that the “rapidity of the process … opens the door to questions about side effects that could not have been detected in … clinical trials.”

What follows is a sober analysis of the possible trade-offs for the small proportion of vaccine recipients who may experience myocarditis: “Although most cases reported to date are mild and resolve without consequence,” the authors write, “myocarditis can be a serious condition.” They cite CDC guidance which explains that the “known and potential benefits of Covid-19 vaccination outweigh the known and potential risks, including the possible risk of myocarditis or pericarditis.” However, they “worry that this guidance does not give sufficient deference to the potential for recurrent myocarditis” and argue that “anyone with a history of myocarditis or who develops myocarditis soon after Covid-19 vaccination should explore carefully with their health care providers about their options until the medical community better understands why this inflammation occurs and if it can be avoided through alternative approaches.” The authors conclude that the vaccines are an “undisputed triumph of modern medicine and science,” but explain that “as health care providers, we should not give the impression of minimizing serious complications like myocarditis in potentially at-risk individuals,” as doing so could undermine the goal of addressing vaccine skepticism and hesitancy.

The contrast between this calm and rational approach to discussions about vaccine safety and the publication of horror stories from your Twitter inbox to more than half a million followers couldn’t be starker.

A recurring theme in Weinstein’s commentary on Covid is his suspicion that nefarious powers are manipulating the narrative on vaccine safety and alternative treatments. Consider his speculation (from his appearance on Rogan’s podcast) on why regulators in the United States aren’t jumping to authorize the use of ivermectin to treat Covid:

I keep coming back to these Emergency Use Authorizations, which have a provision in them: they cannot grant an Emergency Use Authorization if there is an existing treatment that is safe and effective, right? The vaccines would not have been authorized if ivermectin was understood to be what it is. And that, I have the sense, is the key thing that explains everything else. Somehow, those EUAs and the liability waivers that these companies have been granted mean that this is all the more profitable if they can silence a discussion about a cheap, effective competitor that is safe, that already exists. And so in some sense, they started with the conclusion: ivermectin doesn’t exist, it does not effectively treat this disease, and anybody who says otherwise is spreading so-called medical misinformation, when in fact what they’re spreading is information. Right, so bunk is debunk, information is misinformation, it’s all on its head.

Rogan was incredulous at this neat summary of staggering malfeasance and manipulation: “We’re through the looking glass.” Though Weinstein offers the occasional caveat about the “noisy” data around ivermectin, his own biases are clear. Remember: “The tool you need is right in front of you.” Consider the implications of his theory that the good news about ivermectin is being suppressed: every major government is so beholden to the pharmaceutical industry that they’re ignoring what Kory describes as a “wonder drug” capable of ending the pandemic, which has killed millions of people and caused one of the greatest economic catastrophes of the century. The same forces that have the capacity to control governments and keep the world blind to the benefits of this wonder drug are also capable of silencing discussion and debate about the gravest public health crisis in 100 years. Weinstein doesn’t offer a shred of hard evidence to substantiate these claims—not a single leaked email from a public health official or pharmaceutical executive anywhere in the world; not a single government whistleblower with evidence that vital information had to be suppressed to issue the EUAs.

There are other ways Weinstein exposes his bias. Recall his concern about a “set of vaccines that were sped through this process.” This isn’t exactly a revelation, as the vaccine development and manufacturing process in the United States was called Operation Warp Speed. The vaccines went through major randomized controlled trials before they were authorized. If anything, the deployment of the vaccine took too long—Moderna’s vaccine was designed in January 2020, months before the caseload exploded and hospitals around the world were overwhelmed by Covid patients. The rapid production and distribution of the vaccines was the whole point. When the FDA issued the first EUA (for the Pfizer vaccine) on December 11, 2020, the United States was in the middle of the worst surge of the pandemic. The day after the first EUA, there were more than 207,000 new cases reported, and by January 8, 2021 there were over 300,000. At that point, the seven-day average was almost 260,000. Well over 3,000 people were dying every day in the U.S., and on some days that number reached almost 3,400. Meanwhile, more than 130,000 people were being hospitalized daily. A catastrophe of this magnitude is why Emergency Use Authorizations exist. While it’s true that we don’t yet know what adverse vaccine-related issues will arise in the future, Weinstein himself admits that “vaccines appear to have saved many more lives than they have cost so far—by a lot.” The risk of failing to authorize the vaccines was far greater than the risk of distributing them.

An episode which appeared to confer lots of positive attention for Weinstein had to do with his speculations on Covid’s origins. Weinstein was an early proponent of what has become known as the “lab leak theory”—the idea that Covid actually emerged from a laboratory in China, specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has conducted research on coronaviruses for years. While many scientists still contend that Covid likely emerged naturally, the lab leak theory has gained traction in recent months—President Biden recently told U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the pandemic’s origins and report back within 90 days, and other governments are looking into the possibility that a lab leak could be to blame for the pandemic.

When Weinstein appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher alongside his wife and podcast co-host Heather Heying in January, a writer for The Daily Beast ridiculed him for pushing a “Steve Bannon Wuhan lab COVID conspiracy” and closed his piece like this: “You can either trust a comedian and a pair of culture-war-obsessed podcast hosts—who were biology professors and are not epidemiologists or virologists—or you can trust the scientific community.” Considering the abuse Weinstein received for discussing the lab leak theory, it’s no surprise that he feels vindicated at the moment.

But on this subject, too, Weinstein is slippery with his interpretation and presentation of the facts. On Real Time, he declared the likelihood that Covid emerged from a lab at “about 90 percent.” More recently, he asserted that the “likelihood that this virus came from a lab is well above 95 percent.” Where do these numbers come from? Weinstein says he maintains a “flow chart of all the possible explanations,” but that doesn’t tell us anything about the reliability of his methodology.

Weinstein has presented himself as a rigorous but heterodox thinker who is being silenced by the titans of the tech industry and other mainstream gatekeepers. After DarkHorse was demonetized, Ben Shapiro tweeted that the “weaponization of the most powerful institutions of our society on behalf of an increasingly censorious left is the authoritarian danger of our time.” Glenn Greenwald tweeted Weinstein’s announcement about the demonetization and observed that “the internet could have been, and still could be, the most important advance in the last 100 years for liberating and empowering humans. Those who have done the most to harm and weaken it are those who demanded centralized corporate and state power censor its political speech.” In a recent article about Weinstein and censorship, Matt Taibbi writes: “Whether or not one agrees with Weinstein about the efficacy of ivermectin, or the idea that the Covid-19 vaccines carry unreported dangers, anyone who follows his show recognizes that his is nearly the opposite of an Alex Jones act. He and Heying’s shows are neither frivolous nor abusive, and they clearly make an effort to be evidence-based, interviewing credentialed authorities, typically about subjects ignored by the corporate press.”

There’s a powerful argument to be made against demonetizing Weinstein’s podcast and preventing people from listening to his interviews. Beyond the fact that Weinstein certainly isn’t an Alex Jones act, there’s no reason to turn him into a free speech martyr when many of his arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. However, those promoting Weinstein’s work—like Bari Weiss, who applauded Weinstein and Heying’s recent broadside against YouTube as “brilliant” and observed that they were “made for this moment”—should recognize that he’s needlessly driving vaccine skepticism with shoddy arguments and alarmism. He’s also generating paranoia with conspiracy theories wrapped in pseudo-objectivity (with copious question marks and “ifs” to make them more respectable): “Given social media censorship of doctors who disagree with the CDC,” he recently tweeted, “*If* CDC were ever captured by Big Pharma, and if it began coercing universal use of experimental pharmaceutical technology without medical justification or informed consent of patients, what could we do?”

Listen to the full podcast Weinstein and Kory did with Rogan—the idea that the CDC, FDA, and other public health agencies are “captured by Big Pharma” is the central theme of the episode. At the very least, these agencies—along with countless researchers, journalists, and institutions around the world—are alleged to have a sinister, covert agenda: they’re captured, hijacked, compromised, etc. Weinstein doesn’t have to connect any of these threads—he knows members of his audience will do that all on their own. But if you’re part of that audience, you should remember that Weinstein has an agenda, too.