Furore after vaccine critics receive more than $1.4 million in US pandemic relief loans

Six organisations that have challenged the safety of vaccines received Paycheck Protection Programme loans totalling more than US$1.1 million. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Paycheck Protection Programme's loose rules allowed virtually any small business or company in America to qualify for a government-backed relief loan.

Frustrated citizens and activist groups have since criticised thousands of recipients they deemed unworthy, including wealthy lawyers, politicians and political lobbyists, publicly traded companies and businesses under government investigation.

Now the federal loan programme has drawn criticism for giving loans to organisations that have challenged the safety of vaccines.

Six organisations that have made claims scientists have called false received Paycheck Protection Programme loans totalling more than US$1.1 million (S$1.46 million), according to data from the Small Business Administration, which manages the programme.

The data was released last month under a court order, in response to a lawsuit filed by The New York Times and other news organisations.

The groups that received the loans are Children's Health Defence, an organisation founded by Mr Robert Kennedy; the Informed Consent Action Network; the National Vaccine Information Centre; Mercola.com Health Resources and Mercola Consulting Services, both affiliated with the prominent vaccine sceptic Joseph Mercola; and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Centre, a medical practice run by Dr Sherri Tenpenny, a physician and author whose books include Saying No To Vaccines: A Resource Guide For All Ages.

The loans, which were made by banks and backed by the government in an effort to stave off the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, ranged in size from US$72,500 to Tenpenny's medical centre to US$335,000 to Mercola.com.

The loans do not appear to violate Small Business Administration rules. Paycheck Protection Programme loans were available to any small company or non-profit organisation (generally those with 500 or fewer workers) willing to certify that "current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary" to support their continuing operations.

Small Business Association representatives did not respond to questions about the loans.

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate, a London-based advocacy group, uncovered the loans, and The Washington Post first reported on them.

"There's an anomaly here," said Mr Imran Ahmed, the group's chief executive.

"The PPP was needed to deal with the economic shock of Covid, and the anti-vaxxers fundamentally inhibit our ability to defeat Covid and move past this."

Ms Barbara Loe Fisher, the president of the National Vaccine Information Centre in Sterling, Virginia, said by e-mail that her group had applied for its loan "when it became apparent that lockdowns and social distancing restrictions directly threatened the job security of a number of our employees and jeopardised continued rental of our Virginia headquarters office".

The group used the loan to retain its 21 workers, she said.

Ms Fisher disputed the idea that her group is anti-vaccine.

The organisation "does not make vaccine use recommendations and encourages everyone to become fully informed about the risks and complications of infectious diseases and vaccines", she said.

Mr Del Bigtree, the founder of the Informed Consent Action Network, also objected to being described as anti-vaccination, saying his group opposes "the distribution of products that are not properly safety-tested".

He does not consider the Covid-19 vaccines safe, he said.

The loan allowed his organisation, near Austin, Texas, to retain 10 jobs, he said.

"We used the loan just as it was designed," Mr Bigtree said.

Several of the groups have been penalised by Facebook for making misleading claims, according to Ms Dani Lever, a Facebook spokesman.

A page run by Dr Tenpenny was removed in December for violating the site's policy on misinformation, Ms Lever said.

The National Vaccine Information Centre and Children's Health Defence are barred from advertising on Facebook.

Both groups' pages, along with the Facebook page for the Informed Consent Action Network, have been removed from Facebook's algorithmic recommendations system, which diminishes their visibility on the site.

The Paycheck Protection Programme distributed US$523 billion to more than five million small companies from April to August to help them endure the shutdowns and other economic shocks caused by the pandemic.

So long as recipients use most of the money to pay workers and comply with other rules, the loans are eligible to be fully forgiven and paid off by the US government.

Congress recently allocated US$284 billion to restart the programme, and hard-hit organisations - those whose sales have dropped by at least 25 per cent since the pandemic took hold - are eligible for a second loan.

Ms Fisher said her group does not intend to apply for another loan.

Mr Bigtree said he, too, does not plan to apply again.

"Our donor base has gotten much stronger through this," he said, referring to the pandemic.

The four other organisations that received Paycheck Protection Programme aid did not respond to questions about their loans.

Two of the groups received loans very early in the programme, when funding was limited and vulnerable small companies were struggling to break through queues that often prioritised wealthy and well-connected applicants.

The Tenpenny Integrative Medical Centre got a loan on April 11 from KeyBank, and the National Vaccine Information Centre received one four days later from Northwest Federal Credit Union.

Neither lender responded to a request for comment.

Mr Ahmed's group recently published a report on an October online gathering organised by the National Vaccine Information Centre to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.

Speakers at the event, including Mr Kennedy and Dr Tenpenny, described the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to expand the ranks of vaccine sceptics, according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate's report.

Such efforts come as the US government is working to persuade doubters that vaccines for the coronavirus are safe and effective.

Some front-line workers at hospitals and nursing homes have baulked at getting inoculated.

Congress created the Paycheck Protection Programme in late March as part of the CARES Act.

The programme's rules were hastily written and frequently revised, and the relief effort has drawn heavy criticism from lawmakers and others for distributing money unevenly and unfairly, in ways that did not target the money to the neediest recipients.

Loans to three of the vaccine critics - Children's Health Defence, the Informed Consent Action Network and Mercola.com - were made in May by JPMorgan Chase.

A bank spokesman declined to comment on the loans.

Another lender, PNC, declined to comment on its loan to Mercola Consulting Services in late April.

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