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OU students, faculty, staff write open letter combatting COVID-19 misinformation

A group of students, faculty and staff in Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine has written an open letter condemning the efforts of three osteopathic physicians who have been accused of spreading COVID-19 misinformation online.

On Aug. 9, the group — which belongs to OU’s Dublin campus — emailed the letter to Joseph Mercola, Rashid Buttar and Sherri Tenpenny, asking them to use their platforms to encourage individuals to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Dan Skinner, an associate professor in HCOM who helped work on the letter, said one of the reasons the group decided to speak up was because of the general lack of understanding of the field of osteopathy. To Skinner and the signees of the letter, osteopathic physicians like Mercola, Buttar and Tenpenny, who are spreading misinformation, give the rest of the osteopathic community a bad name. 

“Your dangerous propaganda angers and embarrasses us,” the letter reads. “We must continually explain to family members and friends that you are irresponsible outliers taking these positions for personal gain, and do not represent the broader, educated osteopathic community.”

Skinner also thinks the particular danger in Mercola, Buttar and Tenpenny’s messages is how wide of an audience they reach and the authenticity of the messages.

“Certainly, at some level, they believe what they're saying which, frankly, is just scary to me because these people are trained to read data,” Skinner said. “These people are trained to understand epidemiology or to understand viral transmission or the science of vaccines, right? So, at some very basic level, I have to believe they're just wrong. But they're wrong with millions of followers on social media, and that's really dangerous.”

According to a joint report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, or CCDH, a non-governmental organization aimed at stopping online misinformation, and Anti-Vax Watch, an alliance of individuals who oppose the anti-vax industry, the three recipients of the letter are also part of a larger group of 12 individuals known as the “Disinformation Dozen.” From Feb. 1 to March 16, the report found the Dozen were responsible for 65% of anti-vaccine content shared on Facebook and Twitter. 

According to social media links on Mercola’s website, his Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts are active. One of his Instagram posts claims that the same number of people died in 2020 as in previous years and labels the COVID-19 pandemic a scam.

Currently, only Buttar’s Twitter account is active. One of Buttar’s previous Facebook posts claims becoming sterile is “almost a certainty” for those who receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the joint report from CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch.

Although none of Tenpenny’s accounts are currently active, on June 8, she appeared on the Ohio Channel and claimed the vaccine contains a metal component that magnetizes people who received it. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. On Aug. 23, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, a step up from its previous emergency use authorization. 

Claims like Mercola, Buttar and Tenpenny’s are part of the reason Andrea Brunson, assistant director of student affairs for HCOM, got involved with the letter. She said she was concerned about the “budding osteopathic physicians” with whom she works but was encouraged by the response of students, faculty and staff at Dublin against vaccine misinformation.

“They recognize their responsibility to actively promote the scientifically validated tools that we have — vaccines being the most efficacious — to fight this virus,” Brunson said. 

One of the students involved with the letter is Tyler Russell, a first-year medical student. To him, it’s painful to see harmful and damaging COVID-19 misinformation coming from people in a field he hopes to work in someday. 

Mercola, while not acknowledging whether he read the letter from the HCOM students, faculty and staff, questioned the legitimacy of the joint report from CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch. 

“The lack of anyone scrutinizing the digital hate group’s report in partnership with AntiVaxWatch.org is evidence of gross negligence at the highest level,” Mercola said in an email. “Can anyone even identify who is behind AntiVaxWatch.org and who funds them? The ‘report’ is funded by dark money and any attempt to publish it for peer review would be ridiculed.”

Neither Buttar nor Tenpenny responded to a request for comment. 

In response to Mercola’s claims against the joint report, Anti-Vax Watch did not respond to a request for comment, and CCDH could not provide a comment by the time of publication. 

Skinner said he has heard people telling him to ignore the claims of Mercola, Buttar and Tenpenny, a suggestion with which he disagrees. 

“I think that's wrong. I think that we have an obligation to call them out and to also show our students and patients that it matters that they get good information,” Skinner said. “(People) should be able to trust that a doctor is speaking in accordance with their ethical and professional obligations.”

@ryanmaxin

rm554219@ohio.edu 

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