Five ways Fox News is undermining vaccine and therapeutic development

Other right-wing media figures are also politicizing the research and development of a potential vaccine

Mark Levin holds up paper in front of his face reading "VACCINE" on it, chyron reads: "Mark Levin unfreedom of the press author"

Right-wing media’s coronavirus coverage has injected chaos and politics into the efforts undertaken by Operation Warp Speed -- a partnership between the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry -- to fight COVID-19. The most recent dustup involves former podcast host and Roger Stone acolyte Michael Caputo, currently serving as the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, who announced he was taking leave until after the election following reporting from The New York Times that he accused his colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of “sedition” in a video posted to Facebook. However, this is just one of the ways in which right-wing media are undermining vaccine and therapeutic development.

Fox News’ misinformation about hydroxychloroquine created “panic and disorganization” in resourcing clinical trials at the critical early stage of the pandemic. The network pushes vaccine conspiracy theories and politicizes the development of the vaccine (including explicitly tying the reelection chances of President Donald Trump to whether a vaccine is approved in time). Studies have shown right-wing media’s coverage of the coronavirus worsened the spread of the disease, widening the scope of the needs that participants in Operation Warp Speed must meet in order to end the pandemic, not to mention killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process.

These elements of conspiratorial thinking and politicization of the vaccine and therapeutics are having a serious impact. Polls show there is widespread, bipartisan public distrust and skepticism of the American response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, “only about half of Americans say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if the scientists working furiously to create one succeed,” putting the goal of widespread herd immunity by vaccination at risk.

Trust is rapidly eroding in apolitical regulatory and research agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC, and the National Institutes of Health: 72% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats said they “worry the Covid-19 vaccine approval process is being driven more by politics than science,” according to a recent survey from the Stat and the Harris Poll. And the Kaiser Family Foundation found that trust in key players in Operation Warp Speed, including the CDC, FDA, and NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, is “rapidly dropping.”

Fox News, the engine behind much of the coronavirus misinformation in right-wing media, is simultaneously clouding the public’s understanding of the pandemic and putting political pressure on regulatory and research agencies by undermining the efforts of scientists and other stakeholders working overtime to end this devastating global nightmare. But major vaccine manufacturers -- including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi, -- who, along with other companies, signed a joint “safety pledge” earlier this month promising to “uphold the integrity of the scientific process” to “ensure public confidence” in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine development process, are still large advertisers on the network.

1. Right-wing media figures have inserted themselves into the science of controlling the pandemic.

Recent political dramas about whether the federal government has the appropriate personnel in place to fight the spread of COVID-19 has boiled over with Caputo taking a 60-day leave from his role as the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Caputo, a Roger Stone acolyte who led the campaign for Stone’s pardon, is a former podcast host who spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories, made racist remarks about the pandemic, and pushed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on his now-defunct show.

Caputo’s dubious background in right-wing media did not translate well to doing communications for apolitical regulatory agencies like the CDC and the FDA. Politico reported that Caputo had tried to intervene in the production of vital public health documents in order to make their content more flattering to the president, and The New York Times wrote about a Facebook video in which he accused CDC scientists of “sedition” and belonging to a “resistance unit” trying to bring down Trump.

Another example of right-wing media figures being placed in apolitical agencies is the short-lived tenure of Emily Miller as the spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration. Miller is a former reporter at One America News, a far-right pro-Trump outlet. She was fired following a communications disaster in which FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn “grossly mischaracterized” data regarding the efficacy of convalescent plasma as a treatment for COVID-19.

And then there’s Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no background in virology, who was a frequent Fox guest prior to joining the Trump White House as an “adviser” to the coronavirus task force. He is a proponent of the fatally flawed doctrine of achieving herd immunity through natural infection rather than vaccination, an approach that experts say would cost millions of people their lives and portend unknowable long-term consequences for public health. Even though Fox News is reportedly trying to clean up its own mess by warning “hard news” producers not to book Atlas as a coronavirus expert, he’s appeared on the network at least four times since the beginning of September, including on The Story with Martha MacCallum and Fox News @ Night, two of these so-called “hard news” programs.

Instead of being guided by scientists and drug developers, agencies housed at HHS are under siege by right-wing media figures driven by a political agenda, leading to a decreasing public’s trust in the process.

2. The hyperfixation on hydroxychloroquine, driven by Fox News, created “panic and disorganization” in resourcing clinical trials.

Fox News was instrumental in creating Trump’s hyperfixation on hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, and the network continues to push the drug to this day. Hydroxychloroquine is used as a prophylactic treatment for malaria, and in the early days of the pandemic, there was a full blown right-wing media campaign to get the president to pay attention to the drug that was ultimately successful. Hydroxychloroquine is not proven effective as a treatment for COVID-19. Trump pressured the Food and Drug Administration to issue an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, a decision the body ultimately reversed and then eventually issued a safety warning about the drug.

The breathless coverage of hydroxychloroquine on Fox has cost the research and development of vaccines and therapeutics. Stat News cited a Media Matters study of Fox’s promotion of the drug in a report on how disorganized clinical trial recruitment was guided by the political fixation with hydroxychloroquine. According to Stat, 35% of all patient volunteers that scientists “hoped to be enrolled in any study” were enrolled in “studies involving hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine.” Patient volunteers are described as “one of the scarcest resources in medicine, this means that other potential treatments, such as ivermectin or favipiravir, were not studied.”

Fox’s hyperfixation on hydroxychloroquine is motivated by the desire to create for Trump a silver bullet to the messy and devastating complexity of the global pandemic that he could gain from politically. This distortion of science has not only had consequences for the drug research and development process and its implications for humanity down the line, but it also misinforms the public to this day: More than half of Republicans polled told the Kaiser Family Foundation in late August and early September they believe that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19.

3. Fox News spread vaccine conspiracy theories, exasperating experts and driving up the already widespread skepticism about vaccines and therapeutics

On Fox News, vaccine conspiracy theories revolving around various shadowy malevolent international plots involving Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, the Chinese government, and conspiracies of population control come through the airwaves on an ongoing basis. The network’s A-list talent including hosts Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Jeanine Pirro push unfounded claims about the research and development of a potential vaccine to an audience already primed for these types of baseless theories. A Yahoo/YouGov poll in May found that “half of all Americans (50 percent) who name Fox News as their primary television news source” believe Gates wants to vaccinate Americans in order to digitally track them. Among MSNBC viewers, that number was just 15%.

Fox’s influence in the media landscape exacerbates already widespread bipartisan concerns about the development of a potential coronavirus vaccine. Polls show that “vaccine skepticism” is on the rise in the United States: “Only 27% of respondents said last week they would get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is ready, down six percentage points from a month ago.” In May, half of Americans responded that they would be willing to get a coronavirus vaccine. If the public refuses to cooperate to achieve herd immunity through vaccination, the resources poured into Operation Warp Speed will have been largely wasted. Conspiracy theories heighten the already festering distrust of the government’s response to the coronavirus.

4. Fox News is telling Trump his reelection chances are tied to delivering a vaccine before Election Day, fueling his political pressure on vaccine development.

Trump’s guiding principle in responding to the coronavirus pandemic is his own reelection. And Fox is there to help him by politicizing a public health crisis. Media Matters has previously documented that politicization of public health measures and other coronavirus-related news items made up a substantial portion of all misinformation pushed on the network in a five-day period in July -- out of 253 examples of misinformation, 63 instances involved Fox hosts and guest politicizing the virus.

In recent days, Trump has repeatedly insisted that a vaccine will be ready for distribution before the election, even though there’s no evidence that this is safe or even possible. But behind the president’s empty promises are his most trusted advisers on Fox telling him his chances of reelection are directly tied to delivering a vaccine before Election Day.

  • On September 10, Fox host Mark Levin told Sean Hannity that progress toward a vaccine “scares the hell out of Democrats and the media” and falsely claimed they “don’t want a vaccine before the election.”
  • Also on September 10, Fox contributor Marc Thiessen said if Trump delivers a vaccine by Election Day, then “Trump can claim victory on Operation Warp Speed, that vaccinates him and it immunizes him on the pandemic” as an issue in the election. MacCallum agreed, suggesting that “some people would not want the time frame to be beneficial to the president.”
  • On July 27, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said it would “help [Trump] politically” if there was “an October surprise where the president is able to announce, you know what, we've got a vaccine.”
  • On July 16, Fox host Jesse Watters said if Trump “stays focused on the economy, China, and getting this vaccine before November, I think he wins.”
  • On July 2, Watters said if Trump “get[s] a vaccine before November, I think it's over” for Biden’s chances to win.

5. Fox News and other right-wing media downplaying the virus may have contributed to its spread, increasing the burden on drug developers producing and distributing a potential treatment

During a crucial point earlier in the year when the country had the opportunity to stop the spread, Fox News hosts downplayed the virus, calling it a “hoax” invented by Democrats to undermine President Trump and that it was no worse than the flu. Multiple studies have shown this coverage may have led to worse spread of the virus, increasing the burden on the efforts aimed at ending the pandemic.

As The Washington Post reported, a peer-reviewed study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the University of Illinois found that respondents “who relied on conservative sources, such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or unfounded rumors, such as the belief that taking vitamin C could prevent infection, that the Chinese government had created the virus, and that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerated the pandemic’s threat ‘to damage the Trump presidency.’” The study specifically called out Fox News medical contributor Marc Siegel’s comment qualifying COVID-19 as less dangerous than the flu.

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research published in May found Fox News viewership to be correlated to a decrease in likelihood of people to heed stay-at-home directives. The study’s author described Fox’s effect on people undermining stay-at-home orders as “pretty large.” Another paper published by the University of Chicago found a similar result and singled out Sean Hannity as among those driving the phenomenon.

Together, these findings paint a bleak picture: Misinformation from conservative outlets like Fox News -- the most watched cable news network in the country -- may have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, making its containment an even bigger and more difficult challenge for public health officials and vaccine developers.

It’s clear conservative media are spinning the narrative around Operation Warp Speed to prop up Trump’s leadership and reelection chances even if their rhetoric undermines the vaccine and therapeutic development and makes Americans more skeptical of public health measures. But leading pharmaceutical manufacturers including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi, are large advertisers on the network.

On September 8, these companies joined five other pharmaceutical makers in signing a joint safety pledge promising to “uphold the integrity of the scientific process” to “ensure public confidence” in the safety and efficacy of a potential vaccine. These companies should follow through on their commitment and refuse to sponsor the spread of deadly COVID-19 misinformation that is fueling widespread, bipartisan mistrust.

Essentially, vaccine developers are spending money to advertise on Fox News, only to have to turn around and spend even more money to clean up the mess made by the network’s harmful coverage of the pandemic. By advertising on the network, these pharmaceutical developers are undermining the value of their own investments and putting their brands -- not to mention the well-being of the global population -- at risk during a deadly pandemic.