Group Promoting COVID-19 “Liberate” Protests Tied to Hydroxychloroquine Push

A prominent Koch network group that is helping to organize protests calling for states to reopen is tied to a campaign that promoted misleadingly optimistic information about a drug it claimed could effectively treat Covid-19.

FreedomWorks, a nonprofit that grew out of the David Koch-founded Citizens for a Sound Economy, has employed its social media, email and text message lists to promote the protests, according to the New York Times. The group’s website features a prominent call to “Urge the States to Reopen America!,” and it hosts a calendar of the protest on its website and is conducting polling to show that reopening the economy is popular in suburban swing districts, which it is sharing with the Trump administration.

The protests’ calls for people to begin gathering again in schools, churches, businesses, and other places increase pressure for officials to take action that contradicts the advice of medical experts. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week in a press conference, “The one way not to reopen the economy is to have a rebound that we can’t take care of.” Furthermore, the individuals who attend the protests often do not follow the social distancing guidelines that are important for limiting the spread of the coronavirus, as can be seen in numerous photographs that show protesters gathering in packed crowds.

While it pushes out word of the protests, FreedomWorks is also tied to a campaign that promoted the idea that people who contract the virus can be effectively treated with a malaria drug.

“There is clear and ever-mounting evidence that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can significantly help patients who contract coronavirus,” reads a petition that was widely circulated through text messages and social media advertisements by a group called Physicians for Reform that partners with FreedomWorks on deregulatory health care campaigns.

Hydroxychloroquine, which has been frequently mentioned by President Trump, may help some coronavirus patients, but there is not “clear and ever-mounting evidence” of its effectiveness, as the petition states. In fact, recent studies have found that the drug may be associated with increased fatalities among patients who take it.

An observational study conducted by Veterans Affairs found that death rates among patients treated with hydroxychloroquine or a combination of hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin were worse than among those not treated with the drugs. In Brazil, a clinical trial of treating Covid-19 with chloroquine, a drug closely related to hydroxychloroquine, was suspended after patients developed dangerous heart rhythm conditions.

“It is a truly bizarre state of affairs when an organization promotes protests that put people — their own supporters — in danger of contracting coronavirus while simultaneously promoting medically dubious and potentially harmful treatments for the same disease to the very people they have put in jeopardy. We’re through the looking glass,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US.

The petition was co-hosted by a conservative nonprofit called Job Creators Network, which counts FreedomWorks as a partner. Both FreedomWorks and the Job Creators Network have received funding from pharmaceutical industry lobbying group PhRMA, as Sludge has previously reported.

FreedomWorks and Physicians for Reform formed a formal partnership on health care issues in 2015. “[Physicians for Reform President] Dr. Gray and FreedomWorks’ shared vision of a patient-centered, free market health care system, and the intersection of his organization’s network of physicians and FreedomWorks’ vast network of grassroots activists make for a natural collaboration,” FreedomWorks wrote on its website.

Tax documents reviewed by Sludge show that Tea Party Patriots, a group that FreedomWorks helps run, has donated to Physicians for Reform. FreedomWorks is listed as a coalition member on the Healthcare For You website, the joint project of Job Creators Network and Physicians for Reform that hosted the petition.

Physicians for Reform highlights its partnership with FreedomWorks prominently on its website.
Physicians for Reform highlights its partnership with FreedomWorks prominently on its website.

The link between reopening the economy and counting on hydroxychloroquine has been expressed on protest signs. “Hydroxychloroquine is the cure,” reads a sign displayed in Arizona.

FreedomWorks does not disclose its donors, but according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s review of donors’ documents it has received funding from prominent conservative foundations including Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation.

FreedomWorks is not the only Koch-linked group that is pushing for businesses and other places where people gather to stay open. As reported by The Intercept, the Charles Koch-founded and funded group Americans for Prosperity, as well as its state affiliates, is opposing shutdowns.

“Rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health,” Americans for Prosperity CEO Emily Seidel said in a statement.

At ExposedbyCMD, journalist Alex Kotch described more links between Freedomworks and Koch network groups:

FreedomWorks recently registered at least two websites, reopenoureconomy.com and reopensociety.com, concerned with ending the business closures. Reopenoureconomy.com is the site of “Save Our Country,” a joint initiative of FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots, and ALEC that has advised the White House on a strategy to reopen the economy.

A communications agency launched by Koch, In Pursuit Of, registered the site reopenmississippi.com on April 16.

White House adviser Stephen Moore, a senior economic contributor to FreedomWorks, is a Trump ally and on temporary leave from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The New York Times reported that Fox News star Laura Ingraham met with President Trump in the Oval Office in early April to pitch hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness, but has since dropped mention of the drug on her nightly show.