Miss a day, miss a lot. Subscribe to The Defender's Top News of the Day. It's free.

It was August 2003, when Kim Witczak received a phone call that changed her life: Her 37-year-old husband, Woody, was found dead at home. He had hanged himself.

Her husband’s death led Witczak down a research path — and ultimately to the conclusion that Zoloft, a popular antidepressant, was responsible for her husband’s suicide.

Witczak, who had a background in marketing, turned into a drug safety advocate — going public about corruption and conflicts of interest among Big Pharma companies and drug regulators.

That corruption, Witczak explained in a guest essay published Tuesday in The Disinformation Chronicle, became even more prevalent during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her essay, Witczak, a consumer representative to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee, details how COVID-19 vaccine safety concerns were habitually ignored.

The Defender reached out to Witczak, who said, “As I began connecting the dots, it felt like unraveling a spider’s web — strong yet delicate, transparent yet glaringly evident. A trap where innocent prey, often unwittingly, become ensnared in its sticky threads.”

According to Witczak, instead of examining the risks of the COVID-19 vaccines, Big Pharma orchestrated a public relations campaign that led to a uniform narrative stating the vaccines were “safe and effective” and shutting out any scientific inquiry or criticism — warning signs she likened to how the safety risks of Zoloft were once ignored.

Witczak wrote that her husband wasn’t depressed and had no history of depression or any other mental illness. But he had recently begun a stressful job with a start-up company, and “because he was having trouble sleeping, his doctor had prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft to take the edge off and help him relax.”

Investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker, publisher of The Disinformation Chronicle on Substack, told The Defender he asked Witczak to write the article because he had previously written a story called “Vaccines are Magic” — “which was me just wondering, not having worked on vaccines at all, ever, why everyone treats vaccines differently,” he said. “Why is it that you can’t ask these questions about efficacy and safety? It was just bizarre.”

“Witczak and I were talking, and she was telling me the same thing,” Thacker continued. “She said, you’re not supposed to ask questions … It’s like everyone doubled and tripled down on the vaccines.”

“This operation with the vaccines was a massive PR campaign,” Thacker said.

Witczak’s ‘life changed forever’

The day of her husband’s suicide was when her “life changed forever,” Witczak wrote.

“Woody’s death made no sense,” she wrote. “Why had he taken his own life? In the following weeks, I started to investigate, to try and understand why my perfectly normal husband had decided to end his life. The only thing that made sense … Zoloft.”

This led Witczak to become a drug safety advocate in her husband’s memory and a member of the FDA’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee, which reviews new drugs entering the market.

Witczak doesn’t have a degree in epidemiology or advanced statistics, but she said her years of research into Zoloft and the safety of other drugs provides her with a unique perspective not shared by all members of the committee.

“No physician’s one-hour psychiatry course in medical school provides them my depth of knowledge about antidepressants and how the biomedical industry has replaced physician education with pharma marketing,” she wrote.

A turning point for Witczak came when she researched Zoloft — and other similar drugs, including Lexapro, Celexa and Prozac, “each one a blockbuster product that brought in billions of dollars for drug makers.”

“I didn’t learn any of this overnight, but when your healthy husband who loves life, kills himself for no reason, your own life gets thrown into disarray and you can’t help but question everything you thought was true,” she wrote.

When Witczak began looking into the history of antidepressant medications, she was shocked to learn that the FDA first held hearings on Prozac and its links to violent behavior and suicide in 1991 — 12 years before Woody began taking Zoloft, she said.

Although physicians advising the FDA at the time concluded there was no link between Prozac and suicide, Witczak discovered many had financial ties to antidepressant drug makers.

Despite the FDA asking Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of Prozac, to study the link between the drug and suicides, “Eli Lilly never did the studies, and the FDA never followed up,” according to Witczak.

It wasn’t until 2004, the year after Woody took his own life and 13 years after the initial hearings — after the U.K. came out with warnings for children — that the FDA was forced to investigate the suicide issue, she wrote.

Big Pharma ghostwrites academic studies to support safety claims

Soon after Witczak began researching Zoloft, she realized it wasn’t an “isolated issue” concerning one medication, but instead, “part of a much bigger, systemic problem with our nation’s drug safety system.”

Big Pharma “is driven by commercial interests, not public health, and this problem is compounded by a lack of transparency, conflicts of interests, manipulation of clinical trials, and undue corporate influence across the government,” she wrote.

According to Witczak, marketing companies ghostwrite pharmaceutical studies for academics who “sometimes barely read” the papers submitted to medical journals, papers the drug makers then cite as “peer-reviewed proof of their products’ safety and efficacy.”

Thacker told The Defender he came to the same conclusions when previously researching this issue.

Thacker wrote an FAQ on ghostwriting 12 years ago. “I caught something like 15 or 20 different universities with professors accused of ghostwriting — legitimately accused — and nothing’s happened,” he said.

Witczak also pointed to the corruption of the “revolving door between Big Pharma and the FDA,” which “spins faster than the one between the Pentagon and the defense industry.”

“After Congressman Billy Tauzin wrote a 2003 law that ensured Medicare could not negotiate for lower drug prices,” she wrote, “he fled public service to cash in on a $2 million salary running PhRMA, the drug industry’s most powerful trade organization.”

Witczak’s lawsuit against Pfizer was another “eye-opening” experience.

“I wanted Pfizer to pay for what they had done, but I later discovered that lawsuits play a critical role in drug safety by uncovering internal documents showing what was known but withheld from the public,” she wrote.

During the discovery process, Witczak found a Pfizer “marketing schedule for publishing studies and presentations” designed to support their drugs. These pages showed Pfizer had already written some studies “with an academic author ‘to be determined,’” denoted as “Author TBD,” she said.

‘Healthcare is about business, not health’

For Witczak and Thacker, drug safety concerns are overshadowed by a profit motive and PR campaigns touting the purported safety and benefits of drugs and vaccines.

“In my over two decades of advocacy, I have come to understand that healthcare is about business, not health,” Witczak wrote. “And pharmaceuticals are about marketing, not medicine.”

Thacker’s 2016 Huffington Post article, “Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes To Washington,” is a case in point.

The story is about a meeting at the National Press Club where participants discussed “scientific disinformation … and scientific integrity.”

According to Thacker, “that meeting was put together by Ketchum,” at that time a major PR firm for the agrichemical industry. “They were also the PR firm for [Vladimir] Putin,” he said, adding, “It was insane.”

In a previous investigation, Thacker wrote about another PR firm, Weber Shandwick, with ties to COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Richard Baron, president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine. Weber Shandwick also organized a conference featuring panels on medical “misinformation” and “disinformation.”

Thacker said that at the meeting organized by Ketchum, the speakers and panelists promoted a specific type of scientific orthodoxy.

The subtext throughout the entire conference was, according to Thacker, “‘If you believe tobacco is bad, then you must believe that climate change is real, and the fix is nuclear energy. You must believe that vaccines are safe, and you must believe that GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are safe.'”

“That was around the time when I was covering glyphosate [produced by Monsanto] and I was being called an anti-vaxxer,” he said. “And I was like, ‘I’ve never written anything about vaccines. What are you talking about? Anti-vax?’”

There was already a very clear PR propaganda campaign to label people “anti-vax” if they asked questions about other scientific controversies, Thacker said. “Or what they’ll do is double down with claims of ‘disinformation’ and more calls to censor people instead of realizing what they need to do is … clean up their act.”

Thacker said FDA adviser Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, espoused such views at the Ketchum event.

However, last month Offit said, with regard to newly approved COVID-19 boosters, “I don’t plan to get it myself.”

“The guy who was the main cheerleader for vaccines, Paul Offit, is now saying the Biden administration has gone too far,” Thacker said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Thacker said such labeling practices were not mere isolated incidents, and that others he spoke with at the time confirmed what he observed. “It was very obvious that this is a very coordinated PR campaign that started years ago.”

Push for COVID vaccines was marketing, ‘not medicine’

Witczak saw the same thing happening in 2020.

“My understanding of the drug industry’s power changed dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic struck,” she wrote. “Global attention seized on vaccines with a novel technology [mRNA] as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to get society back to normal.”

Having spent years studying pharma, Witczak couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, she “saw many of the same warning signs” she had found with Zoloft and other drugs: “lack of transparency, utilizing fast-track regulatory pathways, and accelerating clinical trials: to include unblinding and administering the vaccine to placebo volunteers.”

She wrote:

“From the pandemic’s beginning, I found a complete lack of focus on safety regarding this novel, rushed to market product. Instead, a message of ‘safe and effective’ was incessantly drilled into everyone’s minds.”

Such messaging, said Witczak, was reminiscent of a professional PR campaign. “My day job is in marketing … The push for these vaccines smelled exactly like my profession, not like medicine.”

“In the media, I noticed very few stories that delved into safety regarding a medical product that used a novel mRNA technology but was still rushed to market,” she added.

“Government agencies, politicians, media outlets, celebrities, sports figures, and the healthcare system all seemed to be synchronized from the beginning in delivering identical messages,” Witczak wrote. It reminded her of a global advertising campaign using “gimmicky sales techniques.”

Witczak cited the example of the Biden administration’s promotion of COVID-19 vaccines “in a partnership with McDonald’s — the iconic company of the fast-food industry that got us fat and sick in the first place,” even though “obesity was one of the main risk factors for dying from COVID.”

There were other real-world consequences as well, according to Witczak.

“The global PR campaign was successful in developing public trust. The ‘We are all in this together’ message was powerful, coupled with the fact that most people trusted the public health officials and their own doctors,” she said. “People just wanted to get back to their life before the pandemic.”

mRNA vaccines ‘a holy grail’ to recover Big Pharma’s tarnished reputation

Witczak was “alarmed” when she learned about the liability shield the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act provided vaccine manufacturers to shield them from any responsibility for future injuries or fatalities.

“This was particularly troubling for me, as I was able to hold Pfizer accountable in my husband’s death,” she wrote.

Witczak soon discovered that any questioning of vaccines was forbidden in the scientific and regulatory communities.

“When I expressed valid concerns … with drug safety experts and advocates I had known for many years, I was met with resistance and quickly dismissed.”

This was surprising, she said, given Big Pharma’s poor public reputation following a string of drug safety scandals and large settlements, including the $2.8 billion Purdue Pharma settlement that took place “weeks before academics began celebrating the Pfizer’s COVID vaccine results in late 2020.”

“When COVID struck, Big Pharma had weathered decades of scandals and was implicated in killing tens of thousands in the opioid pandemic, but physicians were suddenly hailing them as the hero ‘saving lives’ from the SARS virus,” Witczak added.

“It made me wonder if Big Pharma was using the COVID-19 vaccines as the perfect PR opportunity — a Holy Grail to restore their damaged reputation,” she wrote.

“Some days after Pfizer was applauded for releasing its initial COVID vaccine results, the New York Times quoted a financial analyst saying Pfizer’s involvement in the pandemic was ‘as much about public relations as it is a financial return,’” she added.

The Times also noted that the CEO of Eli Lilly — which produced an antibody treatment for COVID-19 — told investors that the pandemic created “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the reputation of the industry.’”

Thacker, also surprised by the pro-pharmaceutical stance rising in the midst of the opioid epidemic, blamed the academic community for its role in perpetuating this PR campaign, as did Witczak, who wrote:

“When COVID hit, I was shocked at how any healthy skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry suddenly vanished. I quickly realized that vaccines were almost a protected class that couldn’t be questioned.

“Where, I wondered, were my fellow critical thinkers and patient safety warriors hiding? Why weren’t they asking the same questions or raising safety concerns like I was?”

Witczak was told by “friends and other patient safety advocates” that the mRNA “vaccines were different” and that “those who choose not to be vaccinated were selfish and didn’t care about the greater good.”

“Suddenly, everything that you’d learned just disappeared because ‘Oh, pandemic and vaccines,’” Thacker said, “because it’s coming from the COVID clergy, the academics.”

It is time ‘to ask serious questions about vaccine safety’

Witczak says it’s time to get curious about why we have accepted vaccines and “must not question them” and to “ask serious questions about vaccine safety, how these products come to market, and why vaccine data remains hidden from outside experts.”

“The good news is that people are waking up and challenging their assumptions and beliefs,” she added.

Thacker said, “There’s so little trust in academic research right now … of science … it’s dropped quite a bit, but these academics just cannot admit it’s because of actions they’ve taken, of things they’ve done.”

He called for “some sort of commission to look at all the falsehoods that the American people were told.”

But Thacker remains skeptical. “What’s going to happen is we’re just going to kind of limp along and they’ll double down with more censorship,” he said, referring to the example of the Biden administration’s efforts to challenge the Missouri et al. v. Biden et al. lawsuit alleging government censorship of disfavored COVID-19 views.

“That’s what it’s about, to protect the federal government’s ability to censor Americans,” he said. “That’s how they’re going to deal with it.”

Witczak told The Defender:

“Transparency and accountability are essential. There should be open debates and investigations into the entire vaccine system. The legal immunity granted to vaccine manufacturers in 1986 was surprising, and it’s an area that requires reform.”

“Until then, some argue that vaccines have become a new business model for pharmaceutical companies.”

“I only wish I had asked the hard questions, twenty years ago, before it was too late, and my husband was gone,” Witczak wrote.

“This is why after two decades, I am still advocating for a strong FDA and speaking to groups to hold this industry accountable. I don’t want others to have to experience what our family did,” she added.