Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
The largest nonprofit health system in Texas has secured a temporary restraining order against cardiologist Peter A. McCullough, MD, MPH, a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic who allegedly continued to claim an affiliation with Baylor Scott & White Health months after he entered into a confidential separation agreement in which he agreed to stop mentioning his prior leadership and academic appointments.
Baylor was the first institution to cut ties with McCullough, who has promoted the use of therapies seen as unproven for the treatment of COVID-19 and has questioned the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Since the Baylor suit, the Texas A&M College of Medicine, and the Texas Christian University (TCU) and University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) School of Medicine have both removed McCullough from their faculties.
Granted by the 191st District Court in Dallas County, Texas, the Baylor restraining order — which is in effect at least until a hearing on the case on September 30 — was sought as part of Baylor Scott & White’s breach of contract suit against McCullough, who had previously been known as a well-respected expert in cardiorenal issues. The suit is seeking $1 million in damages, as well as attorneys’ fees.
The suit seeks to “enforce the terms” of the confidential employment separation agreement signed by McCullough in February and prevent McCullough from continuing “improper use of titles and claimed affiliations that have already confused the media, the medical community and the public,” it reads.
“This ongoing confusion regarding McCullough’s affiliations, and whether Plaintiffs support his opinions, is exactly what Plaintiffs bargained to avoid in the Separation Agreement,” and is likely to cause “irreparable reputational and business harm that is incapable of remedy by money damages alone,” the suit states.
One of McCullough’s attorneys, Clinton Mikel, maintains that all the times the physician was identified in the “thousands of hours of media interviews and countless publications since his departure from Baylor” were “said/printed by a third party with no encouragement from Dr McCullough,” and that the doctor “does not and cannot control third parties.”
Mikel said in a statement emailed to Medscape Medical News by McCullough that the suit is “a politically motivated attempt to silence Dr McCullough,” because it was filed on the same day the organization mandated COVID-19 vaccination for employees.
McCullough “intends to vigorously defend against Baylor’s unfounded lawsuit,” will seek to dissolve the restraining order, and recover “…all payments due him from Baylor under the terms of the settlement agreement,” wrote Mikel.
The cardiologist’s legal team filed a motion to dismiss the suit on August 9, essentially arguing that Baylor Scott & White’s action restricted McCullough’s right to free speech under the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act.
COVID-19 Vaccines = Bioterrorism?
McCullough accumulated a following in 2020 by promoting early at-home multidrug treatment of COVID-19 in interviews with conservative websites and at a US Senate hearing in November.
Although McCullough does not appear to have any personal social media accounts, his broadcast and podcast interviews are tweeted by thousands daily around the world and featured on Facebook pages like “Pandemic Debate.”
Some Facebook posts with McCullough’s pronouncements have been labeled as misinformation or removed. Some of his videos remain on YouTube, where they are posted by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that believes McCullough is “under fierce attack for speaking out about COVID-19 early treatment and vaccine safety.”
McCullough’s March 2021 testimony to the Texas Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee — in which he claimed that COVID-19 patients are being denied what he called proven treatments like hydroxychloroquine — has been viewed more than 3.7 million times on YouTube. The appearance has also been tweeted repeatedly.
Most of McCullough’s interviews and presentations are aggregated on Rumble, an alternative to YouTube.
In interviews, McCullough promotes the use of zinc, hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, doxycycline, favipiravir, prednisone, and ivermectin as COVID-19 treatments — based on an outpatient treatment algorithm published in August 2020 in The American Journal of Medicine. The cardiologist was the lead author of that paper, which proposed treating people with COVID-like symptoms whether or not they had confirmed infection.
McCullough and his colleagues published a follow-up paper that added colchicine to the mix in Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine. McCullough is editor-in-chief of the journal, but this was not noted in the disclosures.
Similarly, McCullough has not disclosed in his COVID-19 publications or any interviews that he has received consulting fees from a host of pharmaceutical manufacturers that produce COVID-19 drugs and vaccines, including AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. According to CMS’ Open Payments database, McCullough was paid about $300,000 annually by drug companies from 2014 to 2019, mostly for consulting on cardiovascular and diabetes medications. His payments dropped to $169,406.06 in 2020.
McCullough appeared on “The Ingraham Angle” on Fox News in December 2020, claiming that sequential, early treatment with “anti-infectives, corticosteroids, and then antithrombotics” could “reduce [COVID-19] hospitalizations by 85% and cut mortality in half.”
He repeated the claim on the Ingraham show in July and agreed with host Laura Ingraham that the vast majority of healthy people would do fine if they got COVID. He also made the claim that 84% of the COVID-19 cases in Israel were in people who had been vaccinated. “So it’s clear, we can’t vaccinate our way out of this,” he said. An Associated Press ”fact check” report has pushed back on similar assertions about vaccine data from Israel.
In a separate interview posted in June, McCullough called the pandemic the first phase of a bioterrorism event, which was “all about keeping the population in fear and in isolation and preparing them to accept the vaccine, which appears to be phase two of a bioterrorism operation.”
In addition, he said, “good doctors are doing unthinkable things like injecting biologically active messenger RNA that produces this pathogenic spike protein into pregnant women.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vaccines teach the body to produce the spike protein, which then triggers an immune response that creates antibodies that will attack the virus.
A PolitiFact review debunks the notion that the mRNA vaccines are toxic, cytotoxic, or introduce live, active virus proteins into the body.
FactCheck.org also disputed McCullough’s claim in a July 13 Ingraham Angle appearance that the mRNA vaccines are ineffective against the Delta variant.
In the FactCheck article, Frederic Bushman, codirector of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Research on Coronaviruses and Other Emerging Pathogens, said that people were much better off being vaccinated than not,” adding, “the Delta variant may reduce the effectiveness [of the vaccines] a little, but still, they’re so effective that you get a lot of benefit.”
“The vaccines are failing,” McCullough asserted in an August 3 video interview posted on Odysee. “As we sit here today, we have 11,000 Americans that the CDC has certified have died after the vaccine,” he said, citing two analyses — one by Jessica Rose, PhD, and another by British researchers.
Similar figures reportedly based on cases reported to the US Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) were forwarded to Medscape Medical News by McCullough.
The CDC website notes that the agency has received reports of 7653 deaths in people who received a vaccine as of September 13 (0.0020% of vaccine doses given since December 14, 2020), but it cautions that those deaths do not mean the vaccine was the cause.
McCullough repeatedly claimed in the August 3 interview that the government has not been transparent on vaccine safety. Since June 2020, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has held 16 public meetings on the COVID-19 vaccines.
To date, the agency has advised clinicians to monitor for rare side effects including Guillain-Barré syndrome and thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and myocarditis after mRNA (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) vaccines.
Med Schools Distance Themselves
According to the Baylor Scott & White suit, McCullough agreed on February 24 in a confidential separation agreement that he would no longer use his academic or leadership titles nor hold himself out to be affiliated with Baylor University Medical Center, Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute, the Baylor Research Institute, or any other related institutions.
However, as of August, according to a Baylor spokesperson, McCullough continued to have privileges at Baylor University Medical Center and Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital, Dallas.
The lawsuit points to three interviews posted in June and July where McCullough is identified as a “Vice Chief of Medicine” or a “Vice Chief of Internal Medicine,” both at Baylor University. It also cites a profile at the Cardiometabolic Health Congress website — which Medscape Medical News had also viewed — that was still active in late July with a similar title. The profile was later scrubbed from the site.
Social media posts and other media continue to refer to McCullough’s Baylor credentials. An episode of the Faith and Freedom podcast posted on August 2 identified McCullough as a “professor of medicine at Baylor University Medical Center.”
As of September 16, McCullough’s bio page at his current practice, Heart Place, lists him as a Professor of Medicine at Texas A&M College of Medicine. A spokesperson for Texas A&M told Medscape that McCullough is no longer affiliated with the school.
McCullough acknowledged in the August 3 interview that his Texas A&M title had been “stripped away” at “around the same time this lawsuit was filed.”
He was still a professor of medicine at the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine in Fort Worth, but a school spokesperson notified Medscape on August 19 that McCullough was no longer with the school.
McCullough has portrayed himself as both a victim and a truth-teller, a “concerned physician” warning the world about the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines. The Baylor Scott & White lawsuit “is really a strong-armed tactic,” he said in the August 3 interview. “I’m just a little guy, so I have to hire my legal teams, and in a sense be drained dry on legal fees,” he said.
But McCullough apparently has a plan for helping to defray his legal costs. In the August 3 interview, he said a foundation he helped start, Truth for Health, has a “donation side to it,” adding “some of that may be used for legal expense.”
Cheryl Jones, an attorney with PK Law in Towson, Maryland, said that might draw interest from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). “I would expect IRS scrutiny if contributions to the Medical Censorship Defense Fund are used to defend Dr McCullough in his personal breach of contract lawsuit,” she told Medscape.
The IRS generally recognizes defending “human and civil rights secured by law” as a legitimate charitable purpose for a legal defense fund, she said, adding that such a fund “must serve only public, rather than private, interests.”
Misinformation From a Physician More Damaging?
Some in the medical field have refuted McCullough’s pronouncements on how to treat COVID-19, including two infectious disease specialists with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who responded to the cardiologist’s original paper in The American Journal of Medicine.
Tony Korman, MBBS, a professor at the Centre for Inflammatory Diseases at Monash, told Medscape Medical News, “we had concerns that reputable medical journals would accept and publish papers proposing treatment of COVID-19 which was not supported by evidence.”
The website Healthfeedback.org has also challenged McCullough’s and his supporters’ claims, including that The American Journal of Medicine endorsed the use of hydroxychloroquine and that the COVID-19 vaccines have caused thousands of deaths.
David Broniatowski, PhD, associate director for the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, told Medscape that McCullough’s casting himself as a “rebel doctor” is a well-known trope in the vaccine misinformation universe.
Although he was not familiar with McCullough, Broniatowski said the cardiologist’s claims are not unique — they’ve been circulating among antivaccine and conspiracy-oriented groups for months.
For instance, McCullough has claimed in interviews that a whistleblower within the CDC knows of 50,000 vaccine-related deaths. Using data from the supposed whistleblower, the group America’s Frontline Doctors sued the federal government in July to stop the administration of COVID-19 vaccines to those under 18, people who have already had COVID, and individuals who the group said have not been adequately informed about the risks.
The idea of a whistleblower inside the CDC is recycled from antivaccine claims from decades ago, Broniatowski said.
But, he added, “Somebody who speaks with the credibility of a major institution will be more likely to be listened to by some people.” That vulnerable group is “being taken advantage of by a relatively small number of disinformation purveyors, who, in some cases, profit from that disinformation,” said Broniatowski.
“We rely on our doctors because we trust them,” he said. “And we trust them because we believe that as physicians, their value system places the patient’s best interests first,” said Broniatowski. “That’s why it’s so much of a disappointment when you have a physician that appears to be exercising this sort of bad judgment.”
Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, also said that he was not familiar with McCullough. But apprised of his claims, Offit told Medscape, “Peter McCullough is a friend of the virus.”
“The kind of information he promotes allows the virus to continue to spread, continue to do an enormous amount of harm, and continue to mutate and create variants that have become more contagious and more resistant to vaccine-induced immunity,” said Offit, the Maurice R. Hilleman professor of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Offit added that the war should be against SARS-CoV-2, but “because this virus has so many supporters, the war in essence becomes a war against ourselves, which is much harder.”
McCullough maintains he is doing a service to his patients. “I’m just giving and trying to help America understand the pandemic,” he told Ingraham on Fox News on July 29.
But he acknowledged concern about the Federation of State Medical Board’s announcement that physicians who spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation risk suspension or revocation of their license.
“I have to tell you I’m worried — that no matter what I do and how careful I am to cite the scientific studies, I’m still gonna be hunted down for quote, misinformation,” he said in the August 3 interview.
Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA, Smithsonian.com, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.