The CIA Spread Anti-Vaxx COVID Disinformation

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In the video I posted Tuesday about the “Lab Leak” hypothesis, I called out the US Congress for wasting time letting Marjorie Taylor Greene yell at Dr. Anthony Fauci instead of conducting an actual, helpful investigation into our response to COVID, which could cover things like “Which politicians were responsible for spreading misinformation that led to extra deaths?”

At the time, I was thinking about people like, well, Donald Trump obviously but also people who are still in power, like Ron DeSantis. I was not thinking about the CIA. But I should have been! Because within minutes of me finishing that video, I saw this explosive investigation from Reuters: “Pentagon ran secret anti-vax campaign to undermine China during pandemic.”

Fucking Christ.

As usual, the link to the article is in the transcript linked below or easily found at But, spoiler alert, they admitted it. This happened. Everything I’m about to tell you actually happened.

In the Spring of 2020, when COVID-19 was killing tens of thousands of people every day, the US military launched an anti-vaccine propaganda campaign in Southeast Asia in order to undermine worldwide trust in China. They began by targeting people in the Philippines, spreading memes on social media networks like Facebook and Xitter that claimed China purposely released the virus in order to push their vaccines, which the bots claimed contained pork gelatin and therefore should be forbidden amongst Muslims. This, despite the fact that Sinovac claimed the vaccines were produced without pork products AND the fact that mainstream Islamic authorities confirmed that even if they were, they would still be fine for Muslims to take. Because let’s be serious: when science and religion clash in a way that puts lives at risk, the smarter religious leaders learn to “interpret” the rules in a way that keeps their adherents alive. There’s a reason why the number of Christian Scientists has cratered in the past 100 years.

If you’re looking at the timeline of all this and feeling a little confused, let me be clear: this campaign launched several months BEFORE China had even finished producing their vaccine. Like, they were priming people to reject the vaccine before it even dropped, the same way bigots give bad reviews to movies before the premiere because they saw a black woman in the trailer. A little well poisoning, as a treat.

But instead of just screwing with a movie studio’s bottom line, the US government actually contributed to, if not outright caused, tens of thousands of deaths from COVID in the Philippines, leading to the country having the lowest vaccination rate in Southeast Asia at just 2%.

And why? Because Chinese authorities were spreading disinformation that COVID had actually started in the United States. They punched us in the face, so we burnt down someone else’s house. Perfectly sensible.

And if you can believe it, the story gets worse the more details you learn. Here’s a fun selection I’ve chosen.

First, one officer involved in the campaign specifically said they did it because “We didn’t do a good job sharing vaccines with partners…So what was left to us was to throw shade on China’s.”

Ha ha, remember when we were all like “hey global health is important because viruses don’t respect borders, can we please share vaccines with the world” and Bill Gates and friends said “LOL no”? Well the military’s response was to make that problem a million times worse. Cool, cool.

Second, the operation was done so sloppily that Facebook figured out what the US military was up to and went to them to tell them to knock it off. The military responded by begging Facebook not to delete their bot accounts and in return they promised to stop the anti-vaxx stuff. Facebook agreed, but the military didn’t keep their end of the bargain and continued to spread that disinformation.

Third, we can’t just blame this on Trump. Yes, the campaign started under his leadership and his administration changed some rules that allowed it to happen despite it ostensibly being peacetime, but when the anti-vaxx propaganda was still showing up after Biden took office, Facebook had to go back and ask them to stop AGAIN just after the inauguration in January of 2021. The discussion “was terrible,” said a senior administration official describing the reaction after learning of the campaign’s pig-related posts. “I was shocked. The administration was pro-vaccine and our concern was this could affect vaccine hesitancy, especially in developing countries.”

It took several more months before the National Security Council issued a directive to stop the campaign, and then several more months for the campaign to actually stop.

The Reuters piece ends on a harrowing note: “in February, the contractor that worked on the anti-vax campaign – General Dynamics IT – won a $493 million contract. Its mission: to continue providing clandestine influence services for the military.”

I’m not going to sit here and tell you there’s no difference between the Democrats and Republicans. What I am going to say is that we can’t just say “well Trump was crazy wasn’t he” and then forget all about this. I was glad to see this piece also point out a previous instance of the US military doing irreparable damage to public health in developing countries: in 2011, the military had figured out that Osama Bin Laden was hiding somewhere in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. They thought they had the right compound, but to be sure, they hired a local doctor to organize a hepatitis vaccination program for local children, because they could then collect the needles and test the DNA to find if any of the children in the compound were relatives of Bin Laden.

That ultimately didn’t work, because the doctor went to the compound but instead of being let in he was given a phone number to call and arrange a time to enter. That phone number was then linked to Bin Laden, and so the military went in and captured and ultimately killed him. This all boggled my mind at the time because it sure sounds like Bin Laden wasn’t even using a burner phone, which means they could have figured this out in a number of other ways, like, I don’t know, try to deliver him a pizza or something?

The repercussions of that inane operation were serious and long-lasting: Pakistan kicked out several important charities working to help citizens, like Save the Children (which actually WAS trying to vaccinate the population), resulting in millions of dollars in aid going down the drain. And a concurrent polio vaccination program tanked because people assumed the US military was also behind that, and that it wasn’t actually going to help them at all. Aid workers are still fighting the resulting vaccine hesitancy today, more than a decade later.

Anyway, who was president during that Bin Laden operation? That’s right, everyone’s favorite leftwing podcaster, Barack Obama.

Again, the takeaway is NOT that “both sides are the same.” But the biggest difference that I can see, at least in the way these operations went, is that one side, the Democrats, can be bullied into doing the right thing. Biden eventually put a stop to the antivaxx disinformation scheme. And as for Obama, the resulting uproar from public health officials forced the US to officially ban the use of vaccination programs for covert operations. But ya know, the 2020 operation wasn’t a vaccination program. It was an anti-vaccination program. So that’s okay.

A lot of replies on my recent Lab Leak video – and every previous one, too, actually – is that well, we can’t trust China because they are lying liars who lie. And that’s true! They do! They seem to have downplayed the severity of COVID, and of course they did spread propaganda trying to claim the virus started in the US. Is it possible it started in the lab and they covered it up? Sure. But we have actual evidence that they DID try to cover up anything involving the wet market, because they dismantled it as soon as it was identified as the most plausible origin site, the animals that had been for sale were all disappeared, they refused to allow outside investigators to see the remains of the market, and they pulled out of a 4-country United Nations program designed to survey wet markets for their potential to cause future outbreaks. THAT very obvious cover up is the entire reason why the lab leak has become a conspiracy theory.

So now imagine how people in Asia will react to this news, that the US government purposely spread anti-vaccine disinformation that resulted in substantial numbers of people dying. And think about what other conspiracy theories, like “lab leak,” will now spread there. And no matter how little evidence there is for them, there will be no good answer to the explanation of, “Well, look what they lied about before. How can you trust them now?”

So congratulations to the Pentagon for once again making the world a worse place. Can’t wait to see the shocked Pikachu faces when the next pandemic rolls around, the world refuses vaccines, and we all die. My god that’s a bleak ending, I’m sorry. I’ll find a particularly cute Indy clip to end with.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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