In a series of members-only videos, Tim Pool and his Timcast IRL podcast cohosts downplayed the risks of COVID-19 and repeated several misleading and long-debunked conspiracies and talking points about the disease.
Though never rising to the level of outright denialism, anti-mask activism, or anti-vaccine messaging, the hosts still strayed into territory heavily frequented by COVID conspiracists.
The videos appear on Timcast.com, Pool’s recently launched subscription-supported website. Pool created the website to insulate himself from the whims of Youtube and other tech companies and has boasted about strong sign-up numbers. Membership fees range from $10 to $1000 per month.
The dips into conspiracism were most often driven by Pool’s longtime friend Luke Rudkowski who cohosts Pool’s podcast. Rudkowski is the founder of the We Are Change media organization and was described as “New York City’s noisiest, most aggressive [9/11] Truther” by journalist Jonathan Kay in his 2011 book Among the Truthers.
The rest of Pool’s podcasting team comprises of cohost Ian Crossland and producer Lydia Smith. Crossland is a Youtuber and tech and psychedelic enthusiast who graduated from Kent State in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in theatre.
Creating Deadly Viruses
On February 1st 2021, a 22-minute long members-only video titled (in part) “Tony Robbins Calls Out COVID As Hysteria Citing Deaths Are NOT GOING UP” was released on the Timcast.com website.
In the video, Rudkowski veers into conspiracism, claiming that coronavirus advisor and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Dr Anthony Fauci has “specific ties” to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and had personally pushed for funding to be paid to the WIV to make “viruses as deadly as possible” prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Here Rudkowski is repeating a common talking point from conspiracy circles which holds that Dr Fauci gave $3.7 million to the WIV (through the NIAID). At best the claim is misleading. What is true is that between 2014 and 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided a total of $3.4 million to a small non-profit called EcoHealth Alliance which paid out $598,500 to the WIV. There is no evidence for Rudkowski’s claim that WIV used this money to fund projects in China to make viruses more deadly.
There is also no evidence to suggest that Dr Fauci has any close links to the WIV or that he personally pushed for – or was even aware of – the EcoHealth Alliance grants. From 2014-19 the grants made up approximately 0.002% of the NIH’s total research budget. It is incredibly doubtful that Dr Fauci was personally invested in a project of this small size. In 2019 alone, the NIH awarded 11,035 grants, each of which went through a long and complex application process. Additionally, rather than being a secret, the full details of the EcoHealth Alliance’s grants are available on the NIH website.
In the same paywalled video, Pool claims COVID-19 has a “99.999% survivability for everybody under the age of 70.” Pool has repeated similar claims in public videos adding in one, “for the people over 70, it’s like 97.5%” survivable. Both of these claims are false. Only those under 34 have a 99.99% survival rate. From there, death rates slowly increase, reaching a 28.3% fatality rate for those aged over 85.
In the paywalled video, Rudkowski also downplays the risk of COVID-19, saying, “only very old people are going to die. Let’s protect the old people. Let’s continue on.” While his claim that only “very old” people die of COVID is flawed, so too is his belief that continuing on without infecting older people by merely trying to “protect” them will work.
As Bristol University math professor Oliver Johnson very memorably put it, “expecting that increased infections will stay confined to young people forever is like having a no-weeing lane in the swimming pool.”
In the video, Pool also notes that in 2020 flu cases decreased due to lockdown restrictions but questions, “why hasn’t COVID?” sarcastically adding, “is it a kind of magic disease?” Hinting at a deeper conspiracy, Rudkowski replied, “that’s an extremely convenient argument, especially when you look at the powers that be.”
Rudkowski may assign this disparity in infection rates to “the powers that be,” however, scientists agree it’s more likely that flu deaths have decreased more rapidly than COVID-19 ones because SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is more infectious than seasonal influenza strains.
The danger of downplaying the risk of COVID-19 as Pool and his cohosts do is that people end up being less cautious as they believe the virus’s threat to them is lower than it is.
HCQ and India
Though never explicitly encouraging their viewers to use hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), the Timcast IRL hosts have discussed the drug on several occasions. As Grftr News has covered, Pool has previously given a misleading account of the drugs evidence base on his podcast. This trend continues on his paywalled content.
Discussing India in a February 9th video, Rudkowski says,
“You think that the COVID would run through that place like fire? It hasn’t. And they’ve been using therapies that if you talk about on YouTube, you get banned.”
Rudkowski names HCQ as one such treatment. In response to Rudkowski’s claim, Pool adds, “now the reports are coming out saying it does help.”
Rudkowski’s claim that India has seen few COVID-19 cases leaves out a lot of crucial missing context. While it is true that official case and death counts are lower than might be expected, there are several explanations for this.
For one, according to a January 2021 study published in The Lancet, for every official Indian COVID-19 case, up to 32 cases were not counted. Therefore tens of millions of cases are missing from official counts. “The reported cases are not even remotely a reflection of true cases — they only reflect people who got tested,” professor Vikram Patel of Harvard Medical School told the FT.
It is also acknowledged that India is missing deaths too because many deaths occur in the home and are not added to official numbers. Furthermore, some Indian states are not including suspected or probable COVID-19 deaths in their counts.
Despite these factors, India has had the second-highest number of global COVID-19 cases according to a Johns Hopkins university count and the 4th highest number of deaths.
Science has not identified a single factor to explain why India’s official death figures are lower than might be expected. However, several overlapping circumstances have played a role, including India’s young population. India has a median age of just 28.4, ten years less than the US median age. India also has a lower life expectancy than most Western countries, meaning “those who live beyond 75 in the first place are likely to be in better health and of better socioeconomic status.”
Others suggest that India’s 70-day lockdown and its effective use of behavioural interventions such as mask-wearing and social distancing have contributed to the country’s low death rate.
What is clear is that it’s highly improbable that the use of HCQ played a large role in India’s success. Several recent large-scale studies, including a meta-analysis from the prestigious Cochrane group, have found that HCQ provides no clinical benefit in treating COVID-19.
Another meta-analysis found no clinical benefit in using HCQ as a preventative measure. Results from COPCOV – the most extensive study examining HCQ’s effectiveness as a preventative – have not yet been released.
Even if HCQ is found to have useful preventative properties, its use has not been widespread enough in India to explain the country’s death rate. Screening, isolation, and lockdown efforts played a much more significant role.
According to Reuters, HCQ was widely available in some area’s of Mumbai; however, local health officials found it offered little benefit. After implementing screening and lockdown interventions, authorities saw much more substantial effects.
Despite praising vaccines as “incredible technology,” which he is “eternally grateful” for, Pool didn’t challenge Rudkowski when the latter claimed COVID-19 vaccine trials had been conducted in “secret.”
COVID-19 vaccine development has been no more secretive than the development of any other pharmaceutical product. In many ways, their development has been more transparent than ever, with an article in the British Medical Journal noting that some COVID-19 vaccine companies have taken “unprecedented” steps in their transparency efforts during the pandemic.
During the vaccine approval process, the FDA, CDC, and European Medicines Agency (EMA) (among others) made firm commitments to transparency regarding COVID-19 vaccines. Doctor’s groups have praised the FDA and CDC for their transparency work. Meanwhile, the EMA significantly altered its publication approach to provide the public with as much information as possible.
While significant work in creating a more transparent culture in private pharmaceutical research remains, it is damaging to public health efforts to hint at conspiracies specific to COVID-19 vaccines.
In one members-only video, the hosts are joined by Youtuber and political commentator Blaire White. Though they all come out broadly in support of an individual’s choice to wear a mask and admit to wearing them in public, the hosts and guest spoke at length about what they perceive as the negatives of mask-wearing.
In the video, Crossland accuses people of having a “blind obsession or blind obedience” about masks.
Blaire White accuses people who say they can wear masks and still breathe of being liars saying, “people just lie, you can’t breathe, stop saying you can breathe.”
Meanwhile, Pool brands wearing two masks (as the CDC now advises following a recent study) “absurd” and suggests that people who follow this sort of advice are “mindless NPC’s” who are just “doing what they’re told” (though at the same time acknowledging that masks make “sense”).
The hosts also talk about the joy they feel when businesses say they can take off their masks on their premises.
Debunked Johns Hopkins Article
In one video, Pool brings up an article that appeared in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter student paper. The article falsely argued that there had been no excess deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States.
The News-Letter’s editors later retracted the article due to the “inaccuracies” it contained, opting to leave up a PDF copy in the interests of the “historical record.”
Pool has previously discussed the article in multiple videos saying in one:
“Johns Hopkins university ran a study where a researcher compared the amount of deaths from previous years to this year and found that the only difference — because the average deaths have stayed the same — is that heart disease deaths are down and COVID deaths are up. And there’s a simple explanation for it… If someone has heart disease, they might die in six weeks, COVID might kill them in a few days. So it becomes a COVID death, not a heart disease death.”
This statement contains several errors. Pool’s claim that the article was “a study” is false. It was a writeup of a presentation given by Genevieve Briand, an assistant director for Johns Hopkin’s Master’s program in Applied Economics, which appeared in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter. Briand has no expertise in epidemiology or infectious disease so referring to her as “researcher” (as Tim does) is also questionable in this context.
While Pool accurately describes Briand’s underlying argument, he fails to mention that it lacks merit and has been debunked. As the online publication SFGATE and others have noted, Briand focused on comparing percentage rates “of total deaths per age category” rather than total raw numbers.
Counter to Briand’s claims, an analysis from the CDC found that there had been almost 300,000 excess deaths between January 26th and October 3rd 2020. Approximately two-thirds of these were attributable to COVID-19. SFGATE also reports, “data from the CDC’s excess deaths due to COVID-19 database show deaths trending higher in nearly every [age] category year-over-year.”
Pool’s assertion that most COVID-19 deaths would have been “heart disease death(‘s)” in “six weeks” is also wrong. If all COVID-19 deaths were simply early heart disease deaths, then there would be no excess deaths. Additionally, several scientific analyses have concluded that most COVID-19 victims have lost at least 10 years of life rather than the six weeks Pool suggests.
As Scientific American explains, “even such a person with a potentially life-shortening pre-existing condition such as heart disease or diabetes may have lived another five, 10 or many more years, had they not become infected with COVID-19.”
Pool has publicly stated over 50 times that he spends 16 hours per day working on his content. In messages to Grftr News, he has also confirmed that he typically seeks out multiple sources about the stories he covers before reading the most comprehensive article on camera.
Given these facts, it’s puzzling that Pool has repeated the same falsehoods about the Johns Hopkins News-Letter article across multiple videos over the past four months, falsely calling it a “study” on every mention.
Another puzzling aspect of Pool’s coverage of this topic is his attempt to refute Lead Stories fact check on the case. Pool says of Lead Stories’ (correct) claim that the article was not censored:
“when they actually got a comment from the authors, they said it was censored, and the deaths are overblown. So how is that a fact check? It’s not.”
Here Pool appears to have forgotten that a journalist’s job is to report the truth rather than just a partisan narrative. Reaching out for comment is standard journalistic practice – as is contradicting that comment if the facts do not back it up.
Discussing COVID-19 tests in one of the paywalled video’s Rudkowski says, “there’s been many people talking about the PCR test being ineffective.”
The claim echos one Pool has made even more firmly in publicly available videos. In one on his Timcast channel, he cast doubts on PCR tests for COVID-19, boldly calling them “wildly inaccurate,” adding, “that’s not even debated, that’s a fact.”
In reality, PCR tests are wildly accurate (though, of course, not perfect). One analysis that pooled the results from over a dozen other studies concluded that PCR tests identify COVID-19 infections up to 97.2% of the time. (Note: this is the sensitivity rate of the test i.e. the test’s ability to detect cases. The cases that it fails to diagnose are likely people who are either past the initial infectious stage, just prior to this stage, or with a low viral count).
In the paywalled video, Rudkowski also claims, “there’s been many false positives as well.” An analysis by the UK based COVIDFAQ website estimates that at most 3% of positive COVID-19 tests are false positives.
In yet a further public livestream, Pool falsely claimed that the World Health Organisation (WHO) was “adjusting the PCR test threshold.” He bases this claim on a misreading of a WHO notice which, rather than “adjusting the PCR threshold,” merely told new PCR machine users to read their goddamn manuals. If Pool had read the notice or conducted any research on this claim, he would have easily understood this. Another 16 hours misspent, it seems.
Taking a Stance
Positioning himself between two warring extremes has long been part of Pool’s branding. For years he has been warning about an imminent “civil war.”
Pool’s habit of drawing the center line in roughly the same place as rightwing populists do has been a particularly effective strategy. It allows Pool to say he’s a “disaffected liberal” while introducing almost all his videos with a rightwing spin. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, it allowed him to push narratives about election fraud. On at least one occasion, after all the networks had called the election, he even claimed that a Trump win was not only still possible but likely.
Now in COVID times Pool positions himself between “authoritarian” officials who implement restrictions in response to the disease, and complete COVID-denialists.
Pool is aware of the branding he has created for himself and frequently refers to himself as a “milquetoast fence-sitter.” What he fails to mention is that it’s a fence he has built himself, and although it’s where he is most comfortable, in the midst of a global pandemic, fence-sitting is not enough. Taking a firm stance against COVID-19 misinformation is not just a good idea; it’s a necessity and a test Pool is currently failing.
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Jack Lawrence is a journalist and disinformation researcher. He is the founder of Grftr.news and runs the @TimPoolClips Twitter project.