COVID-19, Fact Checking

The international network of “Doctors for the Truth”

Photo: Alina Najlis y Santiago Quintero
Esta publicación también está disponible en: Español

A group of doctors has dedicated themselves to misinforming people during the pandemic. The international organization got started in Germany, grew stronger in Spain and expanded throughout Latin America. The falsehoods they spread range from promoting false cures, calling on people to not wear masks and even denying that the pandemic is real, claiming it is supposedly part of a “plan for world domination.” Since they are doctors, their weight has greater influence in public opinion, and some Medical Associations in Spain began taking steps to investigate them out of fear of the damage that they could cause to public health.

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Sunday, March 15, 2020. Day two of home confinement in Spain. Natalia Prego Cancelo, who introduced herself as a family doctor, sent a 5-minute and 47-second WhatsApp audio message about the coronavirus to her contacts. The message saying things like the coronavirus isn’t more serious than the flu or that the healthy population doesn’t have to isolate themselves, among other false claims, went viral.

That was Prego’s first public involvement during the pandemic. Less than three months later, on June 13, a demonstration “against the new world order” was organized in Madrid. Dr. Angel Ruiz Valdepeñas attended that event and made several false affirmations about COVID-19, like “there is no coronavirus pandemic” and, therefore, “neither the mask nor social distancing makes sense.”

After that demonstration, Ruiz Valdepeñas and Prego founded the group “Doctors for the Truth,” according to Prego herself.

On Saturday, July 25, 2020, they appeared in public at an event at the Palacio de la Prensa (Press Palace) in Madrid. Prego and Maria Jose Martinez Albarracin, a graduate in medicine and homeopathy, among others, participated in it. The event was characterized by dozens of false claims about COVID-19, the use of masks and flu vaccines. The main figures and most of the organization’s public members were promoting or practicing pseudo-therapies contrary to scientific evidence since before the pandemic (some of the false claims can be seen here).

Spanish medical organizations have reacted against this denial with rejection statements, opening files and possible sanctions against these professionals. They have warned that the effects of these hoaxes spread by people who present themselves as doctors “can be very serious for individual and collective health” and lead to “loss of prestige and loss of confidence in the medical profession” due to “baseless accusations against all those who don’t participate in their approaches.”

Additionally, scientific-looking misinformation is associated with increased rejection of COVID-19 vaccination, according to a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

An Organization that Started in Germany and Grew Stronger in Spain

That first public event on July 25 wasn’t just attended by deniers from Spain. Heiko Schöning, co-founder of Doctors for the Truth Germany, was also present. Schöning’s group was formed before the group founded by Prego and Ruiz Valdepeñas.

On April 28, 2020, they uploaded their first video. On May 7, 2020, Schöning held a press conference in Berlin. Walter Weber, Marc Fiddike and Olav Müller-Liebenau are the other three Hamburg doctors who co-founded the organization, explained German fact checkers from Correctiv.org, a member of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Fiddike also practices homeopathy, a practice that isn’t proven to work (beyond the placebo effect).

At least since July 2020, Prego has been traveling through Spain and other countries, being involved in events and demonstrations in which she minimizes the impact of the pandemic. This news outlet has verified that one of these events was held at the Hotel Colon Plaza in Valladolid on August 21, 2020. The establishment confirmed that they rented the establishment for the talk. Who rented the place and for how much “is private,” according to the hotel.

On October 10, 2020, Prego participated in the self-designated International  Extra-Parliamentary Commission of the COVID-19 Inquiry Committee in Berlin. In this way, she reciprocated Heiko Schöning’s visit to Spain in July.

“Doctors for the Truth,” a trademark registered by Natalia Prego

On September 28, 2020, Natalia Prego filed an application to register the trademark “Médicos por la Verdad Doctors for the Truth” at the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office. Its logo is two blue hands holding a globe of the Earth surrounded by a stethoscope with a red heart located on the Iberian Peninsula.

Prego appears as a specialist in general medicine associated in the province of Pontevedra in the collegiate member search engine of the Spanish Collegiate Medical Organization. But the Official College of Physicians of Pontevedra has issued a press release announcing its disagreement with Prego’s statements and has submitted Prego’s “allegedly denialist” statements to the Central Commission of Medical Ethics of Spain due to their national repercussions.

In July 2020, the Official College of Physicians of Pontevedra communicated to this medium that Prego’s statements on COVID-19 “don’t have anything to do with the opinion of this college in any case.”

It has reiterated to its members and to the general population the need to rigorously follow the recommendations and orders of the government health authorities in relation to the situation produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.” added this institution added.

In addition, the Galician Health Service (SERGAS- Servicio Gallego de Salud) has indicated to this medium that her name does not appear “in the databases of the health institutions of the Galician Health Service” as “a worker with that name or surnames who has worked or works at SERGAS.” Galea Medical Center, the private clinic in Vilagarcía de Arousa (in Pontevedra), where Prego worked, publicly reported that her contract was rescinded “immediately” after her first audio message that went viral started circulating.

Since then, on her social media channels, Prego has provided a bank account number and a Paypal account for “payment of complaints, lawsuits, investigation in Spain and abroad, cooperation with the extra-parliamentary commission with doctors from Germany, travel, rental of places for communication of results in press conferences, audiovisual production and other expenses to satisfy basic necessities of life.” The “Doctors for the Truth” website also provides a Paypal account to finance the group’s activity. On July 16, 2020, she also launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe, where she has raised €4,149 as of May 4, 2021.

These doctors spread misinformation through social networks and some media appearances. Beyond the viral audio message circulated by WhatsApp, Prego has a Telegram channel with almost 12,000 followers and Ruiz Valdepeñas has more than 1,900. They also distribute their denialist theories through videos posted on YouTube and on Rumble, another platform that doesn’t delete videos containing misinformation about the pandemic, unlike YouTube, which says it does. Ruiz Valdepeñas has also given out his account number and PayPal information on his Telegram channel to receive donations from his followers.

Who Are the Most Visible Faces of “Doctors for the Truth”?

The other co-founder, Angel Ruiz Valdepeñas Herreros, is a registered doctor specializing in Family and Community Medicine who practiced in emergency primary care at the Formentera Health Center (in the Balearic Islands) with a temporary contract “as reinforcement and to cover on call,” the Balearic Health Service explained to this medium.

They have also indicated that a file was opened due to his statements in which he induced people not to wear masks and for doing so wearing the health center’s uniform but they have not provided information on the outcome. According to Ruiz Valdepeñas himself, they have prohibited him from practicing as a doctor in the Balearic public health for three years.

On February 15, 2021, Maria Jesus Martinez Albarracin, who was another member of the denial group that was most involved in events and talks, announced on her Facebook account that she was leaving Doctors for the Truth “for pure mental health.” She clarified at that time that she was leaving the platforms she was on because she was very tired, although she continued to defend the honorability of Doctors for the Truth and its founders. She continues doing so now but on an individual basis.

This graduate in medicine is retired, she is not a registered member of any medical college and although she presents herself as a professor of Clinical Diagnostic Processes, she is, but in secondary education, not at a university. No longer associated with the organization, she continues to spread misinformation about the pandemic through social networks and events.

Martinez Albarracin lives in the Region of Murcia. We contacted that province’s College of Physicians to obtain data on this person and they referred us to a statement “about the statements lacking scientific evidence about the pandemic made by a person who presents herself as a doctor”, whose identity they don’t reveal, but they do clarify that she is not registered in Murcia and does not appear in Spain’s registry of collegiate members

Contain assertions lacking scientific evidence about the pandemic that may generate fear and social alarm” and “damage the honor of public institutions, with the consequent alteration of the public balance,” emphasizes the Murcia College of Physicians about these statements.

They have also announced that they have communicated these statements to the Prosecutor’s Office “in order to protect the legitimate interests of citizens and in case there are criminal responsibilities, given that this person’s conduct could constitute crimes such as public disorder, hate crime, crime of injuries and/or slander against public institutions and crime against public health.”

Telegram Groups to Travel to Denialist Demonstrations from All Over Spain

On March 20, 2021, a “march for freedom” was held in Madrid, convened by the Police for Freedom denial association and supported by Doctors for the Truth. That event was held in cities around the world. Although it was banned by the Government Delegation in Madrid for public health reasons, more than 500 people from all over Spain organized ride sharing in a Telegram group. This medium verified that a bus was also arranged from the Galician city of Vigo.

This is an example of how denial events are spread and organized on these closed platforms, like Telegram (where there are no limits placed on group members and some even surpass 100,000). Since other open social networks have taken measures against denialism, Telegram has become an “uncensored” stronghold of misinformation about the coronavirus. The video posted on Rumble, in which Police for Freedom announced that the event had been banned, referred people to their Telegram chat to receive more information on “upcoming rallies/marches.” The very posters announcing the event refer to Telegram channels, without mentioning any website or open social network.

Credit: Alina Najlis y Santiago Quintero

Connections in other countries, like Peru and Italy

But it’s not just in Germany and Spain that people who deny the pandemic have emerged and organized, presenting themselves as doctors. In the Christmas greeting video that Natalia Prego uploaded to her YouTube channel, there are people who claim to be health workers from, or who practice in, France, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Italy, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Poland and Sweden all of them organized under the umbrella brand Doctors for the Truth.

Peru is the country where the most people appear as part of the self-designated Doctors for the Truth, with five members: Lydia Vargas, Julio Cesar Sarmiento, Jackeline Montero, Roxana Cardenas and Jency Velasquez.

The country that has the third most representatives in the video is not Spanish-speaking. It’s Italy, with four. We’ve been able to verify that denialism is very active in that country. In fact, we’ve disproved the misinformation of two other denialist doctors who don’t appear in the video: Roberto Petrella and Pasquale Bacco.

Puerto Rican doctor Sally Priester, who has also had a talk with Natalia Prego posted on the latter’s Rumble channel, is under investigation by the Puerto Rico Medical Licensing and Discipline Board that regulates and certifies health professionals on that island, which is a Commonwealth of the United States of America, for denying evidence of the existence of COVID-19.

The president of the College of Surgeons of Puerto Rico, Dr. Victor Ramos, confirmed this to this medium and stated that the precautionary measures prohibit her from continuing to make public statements “due to being able to infringe upon ethical proceedings.” A hearing will decide whether or not she will be sanctioned and what sanction that would entail. Priester was a pre-candidate for governor of Puerto Rico for the New Progressive Party, which currently holds power in the island.

In Argentina, the group is also active and Chequeado, an organization of fact checkers in that country, has refuted several of its leading figures.

Medical Organizations in Spain Reject the Theories of Doctors for the Truth

As denialist versions spread to various countries, the General Council of Official Medical Associations of Spain (CGCOM-Consejo General de Colegios Oficiales de Médicos de España) began to react. In August 2020, that body, which assembles and represents all of the official medical associations at the state level, began procedures to open an informative file on Doctors for the Truth in case there is any behavior that violates its Code of Ethics. Together with the Spanish Collegiate Medical Organization (OMC- Organización Médica Colegial), the body that represents doctors who are collegiate members in Spain, the CGCOM published a report in September on the denialist theories on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report from the Spanish medical organizations indicates that groups led by “medical professionals who are ignorant of and deny the obvious reality of the COVID-19 pandemic” have emerged, “creating confusion, social alarm and causing certain citizens who pay attention to them to abandon the only measures that have proven effective.”

[These people] use any argument, distorting reports, making reference to obsolete, partial or directly false studies, using the opinion of false experts or relating issues that have nothing to do with each other” to “gain supporters,” affirm the CGCOM and the OMC.

The consequences of these denialist conspiracy theories spread by people who present themselves as doctors “can be very serious for individual and collective health” and also leads to “loss of prestige and loss of confidence in the medical profession” due to “baseless accusations against all those who don’t participate in their approaches,” the report highlights.

That’s why the OMC and the CGCOM think that the medical associations “must act decisively against the doctors” who deny the pandemic “in an act of responsibility for the protection of the health of Spanish society.” Professional medical ethics don’t allow falsifying data and practices inspired by charlatanism, the document reiterates.

How the Ethics Commission acts in the face of medical denial

The president of the OMC’s Central Ethics Commission, Juan Jose Rodriguez Sendin, has explained to this medium that when a collegiate member is denounced, an ethics file is opened by the member’s provincial association, which can lead to loss of membership for a time, definitively or a warning. But he warns that it would be the consequence of an offense in the ethical code, with which compliance is mandatory. On the other hand, to become a collegiate member, all that is needed is to show proof of the degree in medicine and pay the association fee.

Sendin clarified that when complaints are received, the Board of Directors of each association evaluates the case. If the board thinks that there may be an offense or there is an express complaint from a patient or another doctor, it is passed on to the provincial Ethics Commission. There, the doctor under investigation is heard and a final report is issued. With this report, the Board of Directors decides whether or not to open a disciplinary file. If it is opened, two collegiate doctors have to be appointed to write the file record, which goes back to the Board of Directors to impose the corresponding sanction, explained Rodriguez Sendin.

[It is a process that] has maximum guarantees and can take up to 7 months. The final result can be appealed to legal authorities if the person affected feels like it,” Sendin added.

Sendin clarified that they have received the file sent by the College of Physicians of Pontevedra and after its evaluation, they will return it to the College of Physicians, where the file will be finalized, which could determine that Prego did not breach the Code of Ethics, give her a warning or take away her membership temporarily or definitely.

Appearances on a Television Station in the Hands of a Businessman Linked to the Vox Party

The ideology or political interests that these people have to deny the pandemic is an open question. Political and public media support is currently limited. But in the case of Spain, we can point out that the members of Doctors for the Truth in Spain have appeared on numerous occasions on El Toro TV, the former Intereconomía, owned by Julio Ariza Irigoyen.

This businessman was a legislator with the Popular Party in the Parliament of Catalonia between 1992 and 1999. In the general elections of April 2019, he was again on the lists of a political party, this time from Vox, as the last member of candidacy for Barcelona. Vox defines its project as “the defense of Spain, of the family and of life.” In the European Parliament, he is a member of the Group of European Conservatives and Reformists.

In addition, on his Telegram channel, which has more than 42,000 followers, he forwards messages from the Vox channel. Ariza has personally interviewed the self-declared Doctors for the Truth on the set of El Toro TV.

Promoting Conspiracy Theories on Electoral Fraud in Spain

Pilar Baselga, a well-known disseminator of conspiracy theories and denialist of the pandemic, participated in the press conference where the group was presented and in another event in the Ecocentro halls in the city of Madrid in January 2021. In addition, Baselga founded the Transparent Elections Platform to denounce, without evidence, an alleged electoral fraud in the two general elections that took place in Spain in 2019. During the January 2021 event, Angel Ruiz Valdepeñas described the Government of Spain as “illegal” and “illegitimate”since “you very accurately denounced Transparent Elections.” The masks, of course, were conspicuously absent.

In that event in January 2021, in addition to Ruiz Valdepeñas, Prego and Martinez Albarracin, ophthalmologist Blanco Lario Elboj and Dr. Luis Miguel de Benito also took part. The denialists defended chlorine dioxide (CDS) and MMS as a treatment against COVID-19 and other pathologies. That “gourmet bleach” and supposed miracle solution for everything does not cure anything and is dangerous. Proposing CDS as a treatment against COVID-19 is a denialist theory, according to the Collegiate Medical Organization. (An investigative report on who sells this toxic substance in Argentina and other Latin American countries is available here).

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METHODOLOGY: This investigative report is the result of tracking the involvement of the members of Doctors for the Truth on social networks, especially Natalia Prego’s Telegram channel and the different video platforms that host her videos. Platforms like YouTube have eliminated part of these videos as “actions against misinformation about COVID-19,” which has prevented the investigation from being able to go further, especially in the early days of this group. We have also used search engines and the media to find conferences and events that they have held. Maldita.es has also contacted all of the provincial medical colleges where these people are registered as collegiate members to find out if they have open files and their resolution, as well as the health systems of each Spanish autonomous community to find out if they are practicing medicine in the public health system. In addition, some of the places where they gave talks were contacted to find out if they paid to use the locations and how much.

This investigation is part of “The Misinformants,” a series of investigative reports on different players who have spread misinformation during the pandemic, which is being carried out by Latam Chequea, the network of Latin American fact checkers coordinated by Chequeado, and has been edited by participating organizations and journalist Hugo Alconada Mon.

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