Two members of America’s Frontline Doctors appeared at a meeting at Faith Academy in Bellville Saturday, touting a controversial cure for COVID-19 and telling the audience of about 120 people that there is no need for masks and social distancing to combat the pandemic.
Dr. Richard Urso and Dr. Stella Immanuel, who made national headlines in July at a press conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, touted the benefits of the drug hydroxychloroquine during an event called Freedom from the Pandemic.
“Part of the mission here is reaching out to people and enlightening you and saying ‘hey, we can end this pandemic.’ We have treatment and it’s quite clear that this whole campaign has been massive disinformation,” said Urso, an ophthalmologist from Houston.
Immanuel, an immigrant from Cameroon who earned her medical degree in Nigeria, owns a small clinic in Houston and is also the pastor of her own church. She claimed to have treated hundreds of patients with hydroxychloroquine and touts it, in combination with zinc and azithromycin as a prophylaxis (preventative) cure for COVID-19.
She said growing up in the sub-Saharan country that she was regularly given hydroxychloroquine as an antimalarial medication. When the coronavirus pandemic began, she felt it would be useful as a treatment.
“I got great results. People came in within two days of getting sick and we gave them this medication and they got well within 48 hours. So I was excited and I wrote on Facebook ‘this is what I’m seeing, this is what I’m getting.’ … Of course, they attacked me,” she said.
Both doctors have come under sharp criticism from the medical community for touting an unproven drug and urging unsafe practices that run counter to advice given by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“At that point I started attacking more on social media. It didn’t take long and they were threatening me with losing my license,” Urso said.
He said he found a kindred spirit in Immanuel as they both claim to have found success treating people with COVID-19 with the drug.
“That’s a big part of why I’m standing here, I know it works. That’s why Dr. Immanuel is here, why I’m here, the drug works,” Urso said.
The event was coordinated by Rob Moltz, who emceed the event. Almost everyone in attendance was not wearing a face covering and there was no social distancing with the seating.
“We needed to have a way for we the people to be part of this discussion,” Moltz said. “All of the discussion about this topic has been on levels in the media, in politics, and in the medical community and the science and I’ll say it like this – the pseudo-science. This is a historic event. Right now in Bellville, Texas, we the people are now part of this discussion.”
Urso, who has his undergraduate degree in political science from Villanova University and his medical degree from McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), has been in practice since 1988, and is board certified in ophthalmology.
“I’m not saying (hydroxychloroquine) is the perfect drug for everyone, but almost,” he said.
“When you look at prophylaxis … there’s about an 80% reduction in cases. When you look at the data in total, there’s no reason for us to be careful about this pandemic. We’ve got a treatment that’s really effective and it’s out there and it’s up to us, and every one of you actually, to make a difference,” he said.
He said he has spoken with Vice President Mike Pence about the pandemic. He also said that almost all masks do not work to stop the virus and that there is no proof social distancing works.
“Fear is the biggest factor in this pandemic. It’s a pandemic of fear… If you have treatment, the fear goes away,” he said.
He and Immanuel called on the crowd to act as ambassadors for their cause.
“This thing is not going to get settled until the masses rise up, until everybody decides enough is enough,” Immanuel said.
She said she too came under attack when she tried to tout her success treating the disease, only to find her message getting shut down on social media sites. She said she has had doctors ask her about her research and her proof.
“I treat the patient. I’m a clinician. (They ask) ‘Where is your research?’ I’m too busy, I’m a clinician, I’m a doctor, I’m not a researcher,” she said. “It works, I see the patients, it works!”
She said she sees the pandemic as a conspiracy against the United States.
“I tell you, it’s a diabolical plot to kill us… Why do you want to kill Americans? Why? For money?” she said.
At times her lecture turned part sermon, which she admitted she is prone to do.
“This is way beyond science. This is way beyond people trying to make money. It’s a diabolical plot to kill Americans,” she said. “They want people as scared as possible… We have to pray because this is not a science matter, this is a diabolic, demonic battle.”
She said she gets a lot of people asking what they need to do to be safe during the pandemic.
“Number one, prophylaxis; number two, prophylaxis; number three, prophylaxis; number four, prophylaxis, number five prophylaxis. … The sixth thing I want to leave you with, you need to pray,” she said.
What the experts say
Although not in attendance at the Freedom from the Pandemic event, Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, a professor and an infectious disease specialist at the McGovern Medical School at University of Texas Health Center (UTHealth) in Houston, said he is familiar with the message of the Frontline Doctors and discredits their findings. Hasbun has treated numerous COVID-19 patients and said that early tests with hydroxychloroquine proved ineffective. He said the most proven treatment to date is a combination of the drug Remdesivir with plasma and steroids.
He said coronavirus cases are trending downward in Houston and across Texas. He credited that with the use of face coverings, social distancing, and better hygiene practices (hand washing).
“They (masks) do work,” he said. “There is a lot of evidence that they do work, some better than others. Some mask is better than no mask.”
He said the recommendations for wearing masks and social distancing will be necessary until a vaccine is found for COVID-19.
“This is very important to prevent an increase in cases,” he said.
A spokesperson for Bellville Medical Center said the hospital did not want to comment or become involved in a political discussion.
“As a health care provider, Bellville Medical Center follows all state and federal regulations and recommendations, including those related to COVID-19, as well those set forth by the Center for Disease Control,” the hospital said in a statement.
Those recommendations include the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and frequent hand washing.