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What is America’s Frontline Doctors, the Covid denialist organisation sponsoring CPAC?

The Conservative Political Action Conference, a highly influential hub on the Republican political circuit, heads to Washington on Wednesday, and it will be sponsored by an advocacy organisation once dubbed “among the top purveyors” of Covid misinformation by a member of Congress.

The group, called America’s Frontline Doctors (AFD), passes itself as any other medical organisation, but public health experts and critics say it has promoted pseudoscientific Covid cures like using horse dewormer, fostered anti-vaccine sentiment, and abused donor funds.

“They’re the 21st century, digital version of snake-oil salesmen,” Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University once told KTLA of the group. “And in the case of ivermectin, it’s extremely dangerous.”

The Independent has contacted CPAC and AFD for comment.

Founded in 2020, AFD brands itself as a leading medical authority, writing on its website that “America’s Frontline Doctors is the nation’s independent authority on ethical and transparent standards in science, health, and human right,” touting its efforts to “provide individuals with unbiased and accurate information from the world’s top experts in medicine and law.”

In fact, the group is connected to influential conservative political organisations including the Tea Party Patriots Foundation and a GOP network called CNP Action.

In a leaked May 2020 recording obtained by the Associated Press, Republican activists can be heard discussing the need to create such a group.

“There is a coalition of doctors who are extremely pro-Trump that have been preparing and coming together for the war ahead in the campaign on health care,” Nancy Schulze, a GOP activist married to former Republican congressman Dick Schulze, can be heard saying on the recording. “And we have doctors that are … in the trenches, that are saying ‘It’s time to reopen.’”

Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign and White House adviser who was on the call, reportedly endorsed the idea, according to the AP. (Ms Schlapp is now a fellow at CPAC’s foundation, and her husband Matt Schlapp is chairman of CPAC’s parent organisation.)

The following month, an Arizona nonprofit called the Free Speech Foundation, sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots Foundation, was formed, and it launched AFD as one of its initial projects, according to The Intercept.

Since then, the group has attracted a storm of controversies – and support from top Republicans.

AFD has toured the country denouncing “medical censorship,” promoted medicines like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin over the advice of public health officials, and claimed masks were unnecessary.

Figures like Donald Trump have reposted the group’s videos, and doctors affiliated with AFD met with vice-president Mike Pence.

According to an investigation from TIME, the organisation also promised hundreds of people paid access to ivermectin, but failed to deliver.

Data obtained by The Intercept shows that patients spent upwards of $15m working with AFD and affiliated medical providers to obtain various non-official Covid cures.

In 2021, South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn singled out the group as part of his work on the House Covid committee.

“While (America’s Frontline Doctors) is not alone in providing these services, it is reportedly among the top purveyors of questionable treatments nationwide and a prominent source of misinformation related to the coronavirus,” Mr Clyburn wrote on a letter to the group.

In December of that year, the head of California’s medical board, Kristina Lawson, accused members of the group of stalking her.

“On Monday, I was followed and confronted by a group that peddles medical disinformation, promotes fake COVID-19 treatments, and is under investigation by Congress for stealing millions of dollars from consumers. It was a terrifying experience,” she wrote on Twitter.

“At least one of the members of the group had flown across the country to stake me out,” she continued. “That evening, when I left the office building and entered the parking garage, four men jumped out of the SUV with cameras and recording equipment and confronted me as I tried to get into my car to drive home.”

Jose Jimenez, an attorney for AFD founder Dr Simone Gold, claimed the group’s theories about Covid have been “vindicated.”

“It’s interesting to see that now two years later, Dr Gold and AFD have been vindicated on ivermectin,” he told The Independent. “Everything she’s been saying, she’s been right all along.”

Mr Jimenez said the group’s goal was to “serve as an alternative to the CDC.”

“People can go to our doctors, our news, our articles to find out what’s really going on,” he added.

In March of 2022, Dr Gold pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for joining a group of demonstrators who entered the grounds of the Capitol on 6 January, where officials said she gave a speech about opposing Covid vaccine mandates.

Later that year, AFD sued Dr Gold, accusing her of misappropriating group funds to buy a muilti-million dollar home, luxury vehicles, and a security detail. (The lawsuit was dismissed in December.)

“Unfortunately they continue to spread untruths, lies, even though it’s been stated in court that the board knew and approved and encouraged the purchase of the property and the vehicles and it’s all in the name of the foundation,” Mr Jimenez said of the claims in the lawsuit, which was launched amid a dispute over control over AFD arising from Dr Gold’s temporary resignation from the group amid her legal troubles.