When President Donald Trump retweeted a call to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci on Sunday night, he jolted a fringe conservative movement that viewed the boost as an acknowledgment of its cause.
And the #FireFauci gang was ready with a replacement: Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai.
Ayyadurai, or “Dr. Shiva” as his fans call him, is a controversial scientist and long-shot Massachusetts Senate candidate who is pushing a variety of claims that range from dubious to medically disputed to outright false. He has argued that a strict vitamin regimen can prevent and treat the coronavirus — an unsubstantiated view at odds with the medical community and existing research. And he claims Fauci is a deep-state plant hellbent on “forced and mandatory vaccines” to support “Big Pharma” — a claim for which there is no evidence.
Yet Ayyadurai, who is not a medical doctor, has the imprimatur of several degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an online fan base among the people leading the movement to oust Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert. That includes DeAnna Lorraine, who suddenly ended up in the spotlight after Trump retweeted her call to #FireFauci. Lorraine, a former challenger for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s California House seat who has regularly retweeted QAnon conspiracies, is using her newfound perch to stump for Ayyadurai.
“What I’m suggesting is [Trump] just brings in other additional experts who aren’t just pro-vaccine, who don’t have anything to gain, financially or otherwise, from pushing vaccines on us,” Lorraine said in an interview.
Ayyadurai told POLITICO that he is deeply suspicious of Fauci, accusing him of having connections to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds various health care initiatives, including some to develop and distribute vaccines globally. It’s a common yet vague charge among Fauci’s detractors that appears to be based, in part, on a global vaccine project the Gates Foundation launched in 2010 in collaboration with the World Health Organization and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the agency Fauci has run since 1984.
Ayyadurai, who first came to prominence over a disputed claim that he invented email, argued that the push for a coronavirus vaccine essentially creates a product that can be sold to every person on the planet, benefiting pharmaceutical companies.
”They’re gonna go help all the people in Africa with vaccines, vaccines, vaccines vaccines, right?” Ayyadurai said. “Vaccines are highly profitable. So when I connect the dots, it is essentially about moving this entire [world], using sometimes fear mongering to move it, to mandated vaccines for everyone.”
Vaccines also help save lives, according to health officials. The WHO estimates that vaccines prevented at least 10 million deaths from 2010 to 2015.
Beyond vaccines, though, Ayyadurai has a bigger ax to grind against the academic establishment, a system he said Fauci represents every time he makes a recommendation that counters Trump.
“We have bureaucrats who run science, and bureaucrats who run medicine and you can talk to pretty much anyone in academia, they’ll tell you behind closed doors that Fauci epitomizes that,” he said. “And that’s what has gotten us to this position where the health policy is driving economic policy.”
While Fauci has had a decadeslong career in government, he has a medical degree and his research is credited with advancing the medical community’s understanding of infectious diseases, including HIV.
While Lorraine and Ayyadurai may now be the most elevated #FireFauci boosters, they’re just two of numerous voices in the pro-Trump world — from the fringes of the internet to none other than Ron Paul and Trump friend Rush Limbaugh — who are unhappy about Fauci’s presence on the White House’s coronavirus task force. Their shared complaints go beyond vaccines and vitamins, centering primarily on Fauci’s doom-and-gloom forecasts for the death toll, and the mitigation measures he supports, like long-term social distancing.
It’s gotten to the point that a GOP lawmaker, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, has joined their ranks, complaining that Fauci “has not taken into account societal, economic or social concert impact” when he made his recommendations.
“And at the same time that I think that we are doing things that are right, we are also doing things that are not right,” Biggs argued during a Monday radio appearance. “In the sense that you got 17 million new people that are unemployed today based on Fauci’s policies.”
Lee Stranahan, host of the radio show “Fault Lines” on the Russian government-backed Sputnik radio, said that overall, he’d noticed a strain of “coronavirus denialism” among Trump supporters, particularly among those who initially argued the virus was just a strong variation of the seasonal flu, even though the coronavirus is far more infectious and fatal than the annual flu.
“Now they question if all of the numbers are inflated,” Stranahan said. “It seems like Fauci is the voodoo doll for their frustration with what is clearly a worldwide medical decision.”
As an example, he pointed to the Twitter account of John Cardillo, a host for the hard-line conservative Newsmax TV. Cardillo’s recent tweets — particularly one that said “Fuck Fauci, fuck Bill Gates, fuck Gates’s vaccine profits, fuck your stealing our rights, fuck your destroying our economy” — served as a summation of right-wing frustration.
The conspiratorial angle is part of their criticism, ranging from theories that Fauci is a Democratic plant who worked for the Obama administration — ignoring Fauci’s government work spanning back to the Lyndon Johnson administration — to the baseless suggestion that he is working on behalf of pharmaceutical corporations.
Primarily, however, the #FireFauci complaints stem from the drastic social distancing measures he recommended. And they also blame Fauci for changes in the coronavirus models that he had nothing to do with.
“His projections have changed constantly. I think he first started predicting 2 million-plus deaths,” Lorraine complained, saying she understood the number as the total number of projected deaths. “And now it’s down to 60,000. And you know, why such a sudden change? That’s a pretty drastic change.”
The 2 million-plus number comes from the famous Imperial College study, forecasting the results of an environment with no social distancing measures taken at all. Lower mortality projections are the result of extreme social distancing, such as shelter-in-place orders and business closures. Lorraine said she did not know about that distinction.
Trump and the White House have shot down any notion that #FireFauci was going to happen, saying that he continued to enjoy the full support of the president.
“Today, I walk in and I hear I’m going to fire him,” Trump said at Monday night’s daily White House briefing. “I’m not firing him. I think he is a wonderful guy.”
Trump added: “This was a person’s view. Not everyone’s happy with Anthony. Not everybody is happy with everybody.”
The White House claimed Trump was trying to expose media bias with his retweet — Trump added commentary arguing that his decision to restrict travel from China on Jan. 31 amounted to early action to slow the coronavirus.
“The president’s tweet clearly exposed media attempts to maliciously push a falsehood about his China decision in an attempt to rewrite history,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement.
A friend of Fauci’s suggested that he could survive the constant “barrage” of outsider activists attempting to push him out.
“He’s not someone who blocks out that kind of voice,” the friend said. “At the same time, there’s no negotiating here, there’s nothing that’s going to lead one to believe that we can come together. The drum beats are only getting louder and louder for Tony to leave because every time he outshines the president, they see that as putting the president down.”
Jared Holt, an investigative reporter at Right Wing Watch, a group that monitors conservative activists, said Trump’s acknowledgment of #FireFauci was a potential omen.
“What this retweet does effectively in this media environment is, without Trump explicitly saying that, in his own words, kind of sends the signal for the trial balloon,” Holt said, predicting it would rally the pro-Trump media into place.
Ayyadurai saw it that way, too.
“I think he’s giving a signal that, you know, he understands that something is not right,” he said.
For now, Lorraine said she expected Trump to keep Fauci in the White House.
“He has good instincts,” she said. “He typically knows when to keep people around, and when to let people go that he feels don’t have American’s best interests at heart and let them go at the right time. So I do trust his decision to keep Fauci around, and there must be a reason for it.”
But, she added, “I’m skeptical of Fauci’s information and, especially, it seems like he sometimes undermines the president.”