Mercola’s conspiratorial take on COVID-19 is monumentally wrong, but the upside-down world he paints with his alarming words is based on real concerns. Mercola invites the already leery reader to follow him down a very deep rabbit hole.
A Reader’s Digest version of the infodemic
The book’s black cover, devoid of imagery, is used as a minimalist canvas for its interminable title: The Truth About COVID-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal: Why We Must Unite in a Global Movement for Health and Freedom. Amazon currently lists it as the #1 best-seller in its “Political Freedom” category.
Summarizing the book is, in effect, summarizing the misinformation surrounding COVID-19. In short, Mercola and Cummins argue that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and its escape was capitalized on by every cabal, government, and corporation you can think of to scare people into looking away while they stole most of the world’s financial resources for themselves. None of the diagnostic tests, treatments, or public health measures can be trusted; rather, the disease is mild and protection is afforded to smart people who have no health conditions, eat the right food, and load themselves up with the right supplements.
Fact-checking the book’s thousands of erroneous claims would require weeks and, I suspect, the publication of a two-tome book. But here is the tasting menu, which should be enough for the discerning reader to understand that Mercola and Cummins’ slim book does not belong in the “health and wellness” section of your local bookstore. It should be shelved in the “fiction” aisle.
The book insists multiple times that the public health measures and restrictions will be permanent. Not true. The CDC announced that fully vaccinated Americans could resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing, resume domestic travel, and refrain from quarantine even when following a known exposure to the virus if they remain symptom-free. The state of Florida, where Mercola moved his business, suspended all local lockdown restrictions on May 3. A similar loosening of restrictions can be seen all over the world, from France to Canada. Australians have, for months, been allowed to dine out and not wear face masks in most places because of how successful they were at stopping the spread of the infection.
In one of the chapters he authored, Mercola argues that the pandemic was “anything but accidental.” His smoking gun? The pandemic preparedness simulation known as Event 201, which took place in October 2019, predicted shortages of personal protective equipment, and lockdowns, and riots, and the emergence of misinformation that would need to be countered, just like what happened during the pandemic itself, Mercola remarks! This is on par with accusing California emergency services of causing an earthquake because their training drill successfully predicted there would be damages to the power grid if the ground shook strongly enough. For experts to know how future events will unfold based on past experiences is no evidence of foul play.
Then, there is the book’s scientific aspirations. Mercola claims that the supplement quercetin, a plant flavonol that is sold on his website, “has been shown to inhibit the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein from interacting with human cells.” If this is true, it means a supplement he sells and which he calls a “broad-spectrum antiviral” may have the amazing ability to prevent the coronavirus from infecting our cells. And there’s a reference to a paper to bolster his claim. Mercola recommends its use as a preventative. Unfortunately, his reference is to a non-peer-reviewed pre-print posted at the beginning of the pandemic. The authors used a supercomputer to see which known molecules might, based on the computer’s calculations, bind to the coronavirus’ spike protein. Quercetin was one of 47 compounds. That’s Mercola’s reference.
He uses scientific studies like they are part of a game that always favours him. To recommend a particular supplement, all he needs is a low-quality study based on a computer simulation or a contrived laboratory experiment. Meanwhile, when high-quality studies in humans are used to show the safety of a vaccine, they cannot be trusted because they were funded by an allegedly corrupt party. It’s like Mercola is playing poker with these studies and his pair is always stronger than his opponent’s straight flush.
The book culminates in a chapter entitled “Take Back Control” which opens with the following money quote: “We have allowed out-of-control politicians, tech giants, pandemic profiteers, operatives from the military-industrial complex, Big Pharma, medical mal-practitioners, large multinational corporations such as Amazon and Walmart, and a cabal of global health and economic elites to ruthlessly exploit us under the guise of a global pandemic.”
Basically, trust no one but Joe Mercola and his acolytes. But is Joe Mercola worthy of this trust?
More money than sense
One of the through-lines of Mercola’s latest book is to follow the money because anyone who receives it from a party deemed suspicious becomes tainted by it. It’s a simplistic exercise in sniffing out potential corruption that is routinely applied to governments and the pharmaceutical industry by health gurus like Mercola, but that is never turned inwards. Yet, there is money to follow as far as Joe Mercola is concerned.
A 2019 investigation by the Washington Post revealed that Mercola has been a major funder of the anti-vaccine movement over the years to the tune of $4 million, with $2.9 million specifically going to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). Behind its benign name, the NVIC is one of the principal anti-vaccine organizations in the United States and it was identified as a super-spreader of COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook. Mercola’s foundation, entirely funded by his business, also helps fund the Organic Consumers Association led by his co-writer, Ronnie Cummins, for a total of over $3.3 million. The Organic Consumers Association has been described by the Genetic Literacy Project as “one of the most aggressive of North America’s anti-GMO activist groups,” and the association was part of a weekend meeting with anti-vaccine groups during the 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota to foster doubt in the vaccines. And Mercola himself was revealed to have given $1.1 million to a California GMO labelling campaign, the type of campaign that rests on the disproven idea that genetically engineered food is harmful and should be clearly labelled.
It’s a wonder a humble osteopath who stopped seeing patients in 2009 has millions of dollars to give, but it turns out that being one of the top sellers of supplements and wellness products is quite the booty. His online store is a seemingly endless emporium of probiotics, antioxidants, vitamins, raw dog food, herbal repellent collars for cats, protein bars, grass-fed meats, hair care products, bath salts, toothpaste, sports bras, air purifiers, whole-body vibration exercise equipment, and organic cotton bed linens. Basically, a general store for the GMO-phobic, as all of his products are claimed to be “free of genetically modified organisms.”
In a 2017 affidavit, Joe Mercola revealed his net worth to be “in excess of $100 million.”
Earlier this year, the multimillionaire was selling supplements like quercetin and vitamin C to combat COVID-19. Promotion for his products included the falsehood that “vitamins C and D are finally being adopted in the conventional treatment of the novel coronavirus” and the claim that vitamin C and quercetin work together to be “useful in the prevention and early at-home treatment of COVID-19.” The Food and Drug Administration sent him a warning letter to cease selling these supplements for the unapproved and unauthorized prevention and treatment of COVID-19. This letter can now be added to the other four he has received over the years. Moreover, as part of a 2017 settlement, Mercola was forced to refund $2.59 million to customers who had bought his tanning system which, he had claimed, reduced the signs of aging without increasing the risk of skin cancer. The Federal Trade Commission disagreed.
While we may convince ourselves supplements are a form of health insurance, without a good medical reason for taking them they at best make for expensive urine. At worst, their poorly regulated nature may present a risk to our health. For example, herbal remedies, of which Mercola sells an impressive collection, are often adulterated or contaminated. The consequences, as reported in the medical literature, are numerous, from allergic reactions to cancer, from seizures to liver failure, from irregular heart rhythms to death. You may think Joe Mercola, with his pristine lab coat and his avuncular smile and his promise that all of his products are professionally tested, wouldn’t let you down. When The Ringer interviewed some of Mercola’s former employees, a different portrait emerged: that of a “tyrant” and “bully” who obtains products from other businesses and “attempts to copycat them for his website,” often claiming his version is free of some allegedly harmful filler ingredient. “But he wouldn’t remember which ones he badmouthed,” an ex-employee told The Ringer, “so he would then release products with those fillers.”
This is something we have seen before, with conspiracy theory shock jock Alex Jones selling products that contain soy despite scaring his male viewers into avoiding the allegedly feminizing legume. (A genuine concern with Jones’ product are the toxic heavy metals found in some of them.) Joe Mercola, it should be noted, was a guest on Alex Jones’ show in May of this year, claiming the COVID-19 vaccines would kill more people than the disease. This appearance is part of a misinformation trend: the Center for Countering Digital Hate revealed that Mercola was one of a dozen people responsible for two-thirds of anti-vaccination content on Facebook and Twitter. Most medical interventions are bad, but the sugar pills of homeopathy can provide “powerful healing,” Mercola will tell you. It’s the world upside down.
When viewed holistically, Mercola’s unscientific and sustained opposition to the scientific consensus (on vaccines, on fluoride in the water, even on microwave ovens), his massive campaign of misinformation about the current pandemic, and his blind belief in a global conspiracy may raise the question of why so many people trust Joe Mercola to, as the tagline to his website boldly states, “take control of [their] health”?
Because part of what he says rings true.
The adult table
The money quote from the final chapter of Mercola’s latest book—about the cabal of elites exploiting the population under the guise of a pandemic—can read as pure lunacy but it contains morsels of truth. Political corruption is nothing new. Tech giants do control the new public square and their actions have raised their fair share of outrage. Vaccine makers are making bank. Multinational corporations like Amazon can be guilty of abhorrent and exploitative work practices. As for the “cabal of global health and economic elites,” putting aside the obvious anti-Semitic dog whistle, it’s a well-known fact that humans tend not to let go of power easily.
The problem with Joe Mercola is that he is either unable or unwilling to tackle these real issues with the nuances and level-headedness expected of someone sitting at the adult table.
While adults campaign for clinical trial transparency and for lifting vaccine patents, Mercola writes that it’s scientific fraud that started the pandemic and that keeps it going. While adults conduct careful studies of potential treatments for COVID-19 and learn to let go of disproven ideas, Mercola says that nebulized hydrogen peroxide—essentially breathing in a bleaching agent through a plastic mask that covers your face—is the most effective therapy for acute COVID-19. And while adults and their children try against the odds to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, Mercola calls the Paris Climate Agreement and the global warming movement in general “part and parcel of the technocratic agenda,” whose goal is to strip every citizen of ownership and to concentrate all of our world’s resources into the hands of a small cabal.
Mercola wants you to believe the world is deceitful and hopelessly corrupt. People are always malevolent, never incompetent. Physicians, politicians, and fact-checkers cannot be trusted. But Joe Mercola can, and you should follow him down the rabbit hole to his supplement Wonderland. In Joe’s topsy-turvy world, up is down and down is up, and money flows from your pockets into his. With a net worth of $100 million, Joe Mercola may be the richest doctor on Earth.
- Dr. Joe Mercola is an osteopathic physician who sells supplements and wellness products and his net worth is $100 million
- He uses low-quality scientific studies to justify the many supplements he sells while denouncing high-quality studies that disagree with him because their funders are allegedly corrupt
- The book he co-wrote about COVID-19 is full of unproven and disproven treatments and preventative measures while arguing that the pandemic itself is being used by people in power to permanently strip the rest of us of money and resources
Jonathan Jarry is a biological scientist. His passion for critical science communication has resulted in a nascent blogging and podcasting career, most notably with Dr. Christopher Labos on The Body of Evidence, a website that takes a skeptical eye at health claims. Find Jonathan on Twitter @crackedscience
A version of this article was originally posted at the McGill Office for Science and Society website and has been republished here with permission. The McGill Office for Science and Society can be found on Twitter @McGillOSS