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The head of a national medical organization who publicly called for doctors to lose their licenses unless they supported government narratives on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines concealed his relationship with a public relations firm whose client list also included Pfizer, Moderna and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr. Richard Baron, president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) is a client of Weber Shandwick, investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker reported on Wednesday.
In late 2021, Baron publicly pushed for doctors who spread “misinformation” about COVID-19 and the vaccines to lose their license and certification. Baron said then that “putting out flagrant misinformation is unethical and dangerous during a pandemic.”
Weber, the world’s second-largest PR firm, has branded its team as “misinformation and disinformation” experts and says it provides clients with services to help manage any perceived threats posed by spreaders of such information.
The firm has organized conference panels on “medical misinformation” in which Baron participated.
Last year, Baron partnered with Weber Shandwick to propose a South by Southwest (SXSW) panel titled “When Doctors Prescribe Misinformation.” The proposal was subsequently accepted and the panel took place at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on March 13.
According to Thacker, “Weber Shandwick’s panel featuring Dr. Baron has been widely promoted by the PR firm’s employees,” including Sarah Mahoney, executive vice president, Healthcare Communications, Strategy & Planning for Weber Shandwick, who in a LinkedIn post, wrote she “can’t think of a more important topic right now.”
With moderator @amohsen, SVP @webershandwick— client @RichardBaron17, President + CEO of @ABIMcert and @WasimKhal, CEO/Co-Founder @blackbird_ai, unpack the role of institutions in tackling medical misinformation. Vote: https://t.co/ESp0cVxhkd pic.twitter.com/NDO9jHirkW
— Weber Shandwick (@WeberShandwick) August 19, 2022
The CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) in September 2020 awarded Weber a $50 million contract “to promote the vaccination of children, pregnant women and those at risk for flu and increase the general acceptance and use of vaccines,” according to the PR firm’s website.
Under the contract, Weber employees were embedded in the NCIRD to “communicate the risks and recommended actions for outbreaks and convey vaccine recommendations to healthcare providers,” according to Thacker.
Medicine has always been ‘in bed with Big Pharma’
Several doctors have faced disciplinary action by state medical boards for allegedly spreading “misinformation.” One of them is internist and biological warfare epidemiologist Dr. Meryl Nass, a member of Children Health Defense’s scientific advisory committee.
Nass on Thursday sued the Maine Board of Licensure, which suspended her license in January 2022.
The board’s suspension arose from its adoption of a position statement promulgated by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) threatening physicians “who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation” with suspension or revocation of their medical license.
In 2021, ABIM and FSMB collaborated to create the statement used to discipline Nass.
Nass told The Defender that in order to get certified by organizations like ABIM, there are several requirements, primarily related to demonstrating competence in one’s field of specialization, including completing a residency, being certified by the residency director, and paying for and passing the board examinations.
Nass told The Defender that in order to get certified by organizations like ABIM, there are several requirements. She explained:
“You complete a medical residency in your field of specialization. Your residency director certifies your competence and moral character, and you must pay for and pass your board examination to demonstrate your command of your specialty.
“When you’ve paid them for board certification and successfully completed all the requirements, how can they change the rules 20 or 50 years later and say, ‘we’re going to decertify you now because we don’t like your viewpoint?’
“There was nothing in any documentation from the Board of Internal Medicine about misinformation, or any other standards that the board can impose apart from competency to practice when it issued certifications.”
Dr. Richard Eggleston, a retired ophthalmologist in Clarkston, Washington, also faces disciplinary action — by the Washington Medical Commission — arising from articles he published in a local newspaper in 2021, questioning the official narrative and medical advice related to COVID-19.
Doctors aren’t being targeted exclusively for spreading “misinformation” — some, like Dr. Mary Kelly Sutton, an integrative physician, were targeted for their less-than-100% support for COVID-19 vaccines.
Last month, the Massachusetts medical board revoked Sutton’s medical license, claiming she improperly exempted eight children from required school vaccinations. This came a year after California also revoked Sutton’s medical license.
Sutton told The Defender, “The voice of medicine today is determined by the marketing wisdom of Madison Avenue, not by what is sound information from scientific research.”
Sutton said the whole practice of medicine rests on sharing and providing information necessary for informed decisions and consent. When specialty boards issue vague accusations, they engage in “harassment,” and an “egregious overreach of power” and are obstructing the practice of medicine.
A California law aimed at punishing doctors for providing “misinformation” to their patients is now in “legal limbo” following conflicting rulings in state courts earlier this year, which could affect Sutton’s and other California doctors’ cases going through the courts.
This trail of evidence demonstrates medical boards are not simply acting on their own authority but in collusion with state governments, federal agencies and private companies.
“There’s no one who is a ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’ expert whose opinion does not align with the government and with the corporations,” Thacker told The Defender. “That’s what makes them an ‘expert.’”
“What’s always been true is that medicine has been in bed with Big Pharma,” he added. “It’s now becoming a lot more transparent. These relationships are much more transparent.”
‘A very political attempt to shut down people from having alternative viewpoints’
According to Thacker, Baron began his “crusade for the biopharmaceutical industry” in September 2021. In a post for ABIM’s blog, Baron said, “I want to state unequivocally that ABIM can and does take action, independent of state licensing boards, to remove certification from physicians for unprofessional and unethical behavior.”
For Thacker, Baron’s concern about “misinformation” was first triggered when physicians spoke out against COVID-19 vaccine safety, efficacy and side effects. “These are the same concerns held by Weber Shandwick, who Pfizer and Moderna are paying big buck[s] to promote their vaccines,” he said.
“Baron’s relationship with Weber Shandwick was not disclosed” by JAMA, Thacker said, “nor in an accompanying viewpoint Baron wrote for JAMA.”
After an inquiry by Thacker, JAMA’s editor-in-chief, Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, said, “We initiated our internal investigation earlier this week, in accordance with our standard processes for allegations of non-disclosure of conflicts.”
“It is notable that Baron has done his best to mislead the public and other physicians about what he is doing,” Nass said. “He claims the ABIM is trying to ‘protect the legitimacy of medical expertise’ rather than censoring viewpoints it does not like.”
Nass said Baron “conjures up examples of what the board might censure.” She pointed to a Feb. 23, 2023, New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) article Baron co-authored with attorney Carl J. Coleman, which stated:
“When a licensed physician insists that viruses don’t cause disease or that COVID-19 vaccines magnetize people or connect them to cell towers, professional bodies must be able to take action in support of fact and evidence based practice.”
“Yet this is a fabrication,” Nass said, adding:
“Instead, Dr. Baron, who earns about $1.2 million yearly from the ABIM and the ABIM Foundation, has decertified Drs. Peter McCullough, Paul Marik and Pierre Kory — all highly celebrated, published and esteemed doctors in their fields.
“None of them have uttered any mumbo-jumbo about cell towers, magnetism or a non-viral etiology for COVID-19. All have had their board certifications revoked for the viewpoints they expressed — viewpoints that are supported by a preponderance of the medical literature.”
In a January 2022 article for Health Affairs, Coleman wrote, “Licensing boards are state agencies subject to the First Amendment, and as such they are limited in their ability to penalize physicians based on the content of their speech.”
Yet, a 2022 NEJM article co-authored by Baron argued that while “Differences of opinion in medicine are necessary for progress … there are some opinions that have been so thoroughly repudiated by existing evidence as to be considered definitively wrong.”
‘All this money is sloshing around now for misinformation research’
According to Thacker, “PR firms are now moving into the ‘disinformation’ space after decades of deceit on behalf of multiple industries,” with Weber Shandwick having “expanded into the disinformation space in late 2021,” promoting tactics that help “brands combat misinformation and disinformation that may implicate them.”
Speaking to Thacker, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, director of bioethics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said, “The ABIM is clearly part of this ‘medical misinformation’ push, which is orchestrated by pharmaceutical companies and their PR allies” and which serves “the interests of Big Pharma.”
Remarking on the presence of a “medical misinformation” panel at SXSW, long known as a music, film and technology festival, Thacker told The Defender, “Anyone and everyone is getting involved in ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation.’”
“Baron has given a TED Talk, for instance. Why is TED Talks involved in this?” he asked.
In 2019 Baron delivered a talk at TEDx Chicago titled, “Please Don’t Confuse Your Google Search with My Medical Degree.”
For Thacker, the answer relates to financial interests. “All this money is sloshing around now for ‘misinformation’ research. Anyone can hop up and down saying ‘I’m an expert on misinformation and disinformation, get me a grant, get me on a panel,’” he said.
Weber embedded staffers within the CDC while representing Pfizer, Moderna
Thacker wrote that prior to discovering Baron’s ties to Weber Shandwick, he had confirmed the PR firm’s ties to COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna.
These ties did not prevent the CDC from awarding the $50 million contract to Weber Shandwick in September 2020 to push vaccines. The Daily Mail subsequently reported Thacker’s findings.
Medical Marketing and Media reported “Weber’s duties include providing 10 on-site health communications staffers, seven health comms specialists, two health research specialists and one social media specialist” to NCIRD, as well as “generating story ideas, distributing articles and conducting outreach to news, media and entertainment organizations.”
In October 2020, a blog post by Stacy Montejo, senior vice president at Weber Shandwick, disclosed that Pfizer is one of the firm’s clients. A month later, with Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine awaiting Emergency Use Authorization, the company hired Weber Shandwick to handle the vaccine’s publicity, according to PR Week.
Such relationships have continued to the present. In June, Moderna announced a new communications strategy “to further educate the world about Moderna’s mRNA technology and its promise to transform the future of human health.”
The effort is led by Laura Schoen, “who is sometimes titled president of global healthcare at Weber Shandwick, and other times chief healthcare officer at IPG DXTRA, Weber Shandwick’s parent company,” Thacker wrote.
Lucy Rieck, a Weber Shandwick employee, previously publicly tweeted support for a panel Moderna proposed for this year’s SXSW, titled “COVID, Monkeypox, Disease X, What’s Next?” That proposal does not appear to have been accepted for presentation.
Conflicts of interest between Weber Shandwick, the CDC and NCIRD, and Pfizer and Moderna do not appear to have been disclosed.
In October 2022, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) sent a letter to the CDC inquiring about its relationship with Weber Shandwick and requesting “information regarding the nature of Weber’s work for the NCIRD.” It’s unclear whether the CDC complied with the request.
Todd S. Richardson, one of the attorneys representing Eggleston, told The Defender “While it is certainly understandable that governmental agencies will hire PR firms to help them get their message out … it becomes of real concern to me when those agencies, or people working within the agencies, try to silence those who disagree.”
According to Thacker, the web of relationships between Weber Shandwick doesn’t just extend to Big Pharma companies, the CDC and its agencies, or to doctors such as Baron. Academics such as Brown University’s Claire Wardle, Ph.D., a key figure in the “misinformation research” space, have participated in some of the firm’s events.
Wardle, a professor of the practice of Health Services, Policy and Practice at Brown University who has no scientific or medical credentials, participated in an online meeting organized by Weber Shandwick in October 2020 to discuss “election misinformation.”
Subsequently, Wardle played a key advisory role in the Biden administration, federal agencies, social media platforms and Ivy League institutions as they sought to censor content that ran counter to the government’s COVID-19 narrative.
According to Thacker, she “helped organize many of today’s campus disinformation groups … with funding from Google” and later sent Twitter a report aimed at countering the “growing threat of disinformation to trust in COVID-19 vaccines.”
Thacker said the biopharmaceutical industry is “the smartest at putting out disinformation. What other industry has bought off the medical community and the science community?” he asked. “They bought off the researchers, the government, the academic journals.”
Thacker said he believes much of what is labeled “misinformation” in medicine and academic research “is really just corporate PR,” and that “Congress needs to take a harder look at funding for ‘misinformation research.’“