Last update: 05/19/2021
Sunday, March 15th, 2020. Second day of lockdown in Spain. Natalia Prego Cancelo, who presents herself as a family doctor, sends a voice note about coronavirus that lasts 5 minutes and 47 seconds to her WhatsApp contacts. The message that went viral said, among other things, that coronavirus wasn’t more serious than a flu and that healthy people shouldn’t isolate.
That was Prego’s first public intervention during the pandemic. Less than three months later, on June 13th, there was a demonstration in Madrid “against the new global order.” Doctor Ángel Ruiz Valdepeñas attended the demonstration, and made false claims about COVID-19, saying that “there is no coronavirus pandemic” and, therefore, “it doesn’t make any sense to wear face masks or social distance.”
After the demonstration, Ruiz Valdepeñas and Prego founded the organization “Doctors for the Truth,” according to Prego. On Saturday, July 25th, 2020, they attended an event in Madrid’s Palacio de la Prensa. In the event participated Prego and María José Martínez Albarracín, Bachelor of Medicine and homeopath, among others. The event was characterized by tens of false claims about COVID-19, face masks and flu vaccines. The main figures and most of the organization’s public members promoted or practised pseudo-therapies that go against scientific evidence since before the pandemic (read some of the false claims here).
Spanish medical organizations have responded to this denialism with statements rejecting those claims and requesting disciplinary actions and possible sanctions against these professionals. They have warned that the effects of disinformation spread by people who present themselves as doctors “can be very harmful for individual and collective health” and represent “loss of prestige and confidence in the medical profession” due to “unsubstantiated allegations against everyone that doesn’t share their approaches.” Besides, scientific-sounding disinformation is more strongly associated with declines in vaccination intent, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour.
An Organization that Started in Germany and Grew Stronger in Spain
That first act on July 25th wasn’t just attended by Spanish denialists. Heiko Schöning, co-founder of “Doctors for the Truth Germany,” was also there. Schöning’s group was founded before Prego’s and Ruiz Valdepeñas’. On April 28th, 2020, they uploaded their first video. On May 7th, 2020, Schöning gave a press conference in Berlin. German fact-checkers of Correctiv.org, an organization member of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), claim that Walter Weber, Marc Fiddike and Olav Müller-Liebenau are the other three doctors from Hamburg that co-founded the organization. Fiddike is also a homeopath, which is a practice that hasn’t proved to work (beyond the placebo effect).
Prego has been traveling to Spain and other countries since July 2020. She’s been attending events and demonstrations that minimize the impact of the pandemic. One of these events was held in Hotel Colón Plaza de Valladolid, on August 21st, 2020. The hotel has confirmed that it was booked for that event. However, they claim that who booked it and how much they paid “is private.”
On October 10th, 2020, Prego went to Berlin to participate in the self-proclaimed “International Extra-Parliamentary Commission” of the COVID-19 Investigation Committee. She was returning the favor to Heiko Schöning.
“Doctors for the Truth”, a Trademark Registered by Natalia Prego
On September 28th, 2020, Natalia Prego presented an application to register the trademark “Doctors for the Truth” in the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office. The logo shows two blue hands holding a globe surrounded by a stethoscope with a red heart located in the Iberian Peninsula.
On the website of the Spanish Medical Association (OMC, as for the Spanish acronym), Prego appears as a general practitioner certified in Pontevedra. However, the Colegio Oficial de Médicos of Pontevedra (Official College of Physicians) has shared a press release against Prego’s claims and has complained to the Central Commission on Deontology of Spain about her “alleged denialist” statements due to their national repercussions.
The Colegio Oficial de Médicos of Pontevedra confirmed in July 2020 that Prego’s claims about COVID-19 “have nothing to do with the opinion of this College.” They added that “we have reiterated to our members and to the general population the need of carefully following the recommendations and orders from the government’s health authorities in relation to the situation produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In addition to this, the Galician Health Care Service (SERGAS, as for the Spanish acronym) confirmed that Prego’s name does not appear “in the databases of any health institution under the Galician Health Care Service” and that “no one with that name and last name has worked or works at SERGAS.” The private clinic of Vilagarcía de Arousa (in Pontevedra), where Prego used to work, publicly informed that they terminated her contract “effective immediately” after her first disinformative voice note went viral.
Since then, Prego shares on her social media her bank account number and a PayPal account for “the payment of complaints, lawsuits, Spanish and international investigations, cooperation with the extra-parliamentary commission with German doctors, travel, venue rentals to share results in press conferences, audiovisual productions and other expenses to meet life’s basic needs.” The website of “Doctors for the Truth” also shares a PayPal account to fund the organization’s activities. On July 16th, 2020, they also launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe, where they’ve raised € 4,149 until May 4th, 2021.
These doctors spread disinformation on social media and interviews with media outlets. Besides the viral voice note she sent on WhatsApp, Prego also has a Telegram channel with almost 12,000 followers, and Ruiz Valdepeñas, 1,900. They share their denialist theories on videos uploaded to YouTube and Rumble, another platform that, unlike what YouTube says it does, doesn’t delete videos with disinformation on the pandemic. Ruiz Valdepeñas also included in his Telegram channel his bank account and PayPal account to receive donations from his followers.
Who Are the Most Visible Faces of “Doctors for the Truth”?
The other co-founder, Ángel Ruiz Valdepeñas Herreros, is a Family and Community Medicine Specialist that worked in the primary health care units of Formentera’s hospital (in the Balearic Islands) with a temporary contract “as reinforcement, to work in the emergency room,” according to the Balearic Health Service. They’ve also confirmed that a file was opened due to his claims urging people not to wear face masks while wearing the hospital’s uniform, but they have not provided information on the outcome. The Official College of Doctors of the Balearic Islands unanimously agreed, in January 2021, to penalize Ruiz Valdepeñas with a 6-year suspension and a € 16,732.80 fine for promoting “actions that go against scientific evidence” and “inadequate professional praxis.” The actions that led to this sanction are “extremely serious and highly irresponsible, as they provoke a state of social confusion, fear and alarm, which is a major risk for public health,” said the Official College of Doctors of the Balearic Islands in a statement.
María Jesús Martínez Albarracín, who, on February 15th, 2021, announced on her Facebook profile that she was leaving “Doctors for the Truth” for her “mental health,” was one of the members of the denialist organization that participated the most in talks and events. She clarified that she was leaving those platforms because she was exhausted, although she still defended the honorability of “Doctors for the Truth” and its founders. She continues to do so, but now on an individual basis. This doctor has retired, she’s not a member of any medical college and, even though she presents herself as a professor in Clinical Diagnostic Processes, she teaches in high schools, not universities. While she’s no longer associated with “Doctors for the Truth,” she continues to spread disinformation on the pandemic on social media and events.
Martínez Albarracín lives in the Region of Murcia. We contacted their College of Doctors to obtain data about her, but they only presented a statement “about the unsubstantiated claims about the pandemic made by someone who claims to be a doctor,” whose identity they didn’t disclose, although they did clarify that she’s not a member of the College in Murcia or any other College in Spain. The College of Doctors in the Region of Murcia highlights that her claims “include assertions that lack scientific evidence about the pandemic that can cause social fear and alarm” and “harm the honor of public institutions while disrupting the public balance.” They also confirmed that they shared these statements with the Prosecutor’s Office “to protect the citizens’ legitimate interests, and in case there are criminal responsibilities since this person’s behavior could constitute crimes, such as public disorder, hate crimes, crimes of injuries and/or slander against public institutions and crimes against public health.”
Telegram Groups to Travel from Spain to Denialist Demonstrations
On March 20th, 2021, a “freedom demonstration” was held in Madrid by the denialist organization “Police Officers for Freedom,” supported by “Doctors for the Truth.” This event occurred in several cities, all over the world. Despite being forbidden by the Government of Madrid for public health reasons, over 500 people from all over Spain organized ride sharing in a Telegram group. There was also a bus departing from the Galician city of Vigo.
This is an example of how these close platforms, like Telegram, which doesn’t have a limit in adding members, and some groups even have 100,000 subscribers, are used to share and organize denialist events. Since other open social media networks have taken steps against denialism, Telegram has become an “uncensored” bastion for coronavirus disinformation. In the video published in Rumble where “Police officers for Freedom” announced that the event had been forbidden, they also directed people to their Telegram chat to receive more information about “future demonstrations/rallies.” Even the posters announcing the act referred to Telegram channels, without mentioning any open website or social media network.
Connections in Other Countries, like Peru and Italy
However, it’s not only in Germany and Spain where pandemic denials have emerged and organized, introducing themselves as doctors. In the Christmas video that Natalia Prego uploaded to her YouTube channel, there are other people that claim to be doctors or health workers in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Italy, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Poland and Sweden. They were all organized under the umbrella mark “Doctors for the Truth.”
Peru is the country with the highest number of members of “Doctors for the Truth”: five. Lydia Vargas, Julio César Sarmiento, Jackeline Montero, Roxana Cárdenas and Jency Velásquez. The third country with more members is not Spanish-speaking; it’s Italy, with four. We’ve been able to verify that denialism is very active there. Actually, we’ve debunked disinformative claims of another two doctors that deny the pandemic, but that are not in the video: Roberto Petrella and Pasquale Bacco.
Puerto Rican doctor Sally Priester, who also has a conversation with Natalia Prego published on the latter’s Rumble channel, is being investigated by the Puerto Rican Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline, which regulates and certifies health professionals in the island and free associated state, for denying the existence of COVID-19. The President of the Puerto Rico College of Physicians and Surgeons, doctor Victor Ramos, confirmed this, and assured that precautionary measures forbid her to make public claims “for not following ethics procedures.” A hearing will decide if she’ll be sanctioned or not, and what sanctions would be imposed. Priester was pre-candidate to Governor of Puerto Rico with the New Progressive Party (PNP, as for the Spanish acronym), which currently governs the island.
In Argentina, the group is also active, and Chequeado has debunked several of their representatives.
Spanish Medical Associations Reject the Theories of “Doctors for the Truth”
While denialist versions were spread in several countries, the Spanish General Medical Council (CGCOM, as for the Spanish acronym) started to react. In August 2020, the body that groups and represents all state official medical colleges began procedures to open an informative file on “Doctors for the Truth,” to check if any of their actions violated their Code of Ethics. With the OMC, which represents doctors who are collegiate members in Spain, the CGCOM published in September a report on the denialist theories on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The document written by Spanish medical organizations states that several groups have emerged “lead by doctors that do not acknowledge and even deny the evident reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, thus causing confusion, social alarm and making citizens that pay attention to them abandon the only policies that have proved to be effective.” These people “would use any argument, distort reports, quote obsolete, partial or false studies, follow the opinion of false experts or link issues that have no relation with each other” to “attract followers,” according to the CGCOM and the OMC.
The consequences of these denialist theories spread by people who present themselves as doctors “can be very harmful to individual and collective health” and represent “loss of prestige and confidence in the medical profession” due to “unsubstantiated allegations against everyone that doesn’t share their approaches,” says the report.
The OMC and the CGCOM believe that medical colleges “will have to take conclusive steps against doctors” that deny the pandemic “as an act of responsibility to protect the health of Spanish society.” Medical ethics don’t allow false data and practices inspired in charlatanism, reiterates the document.
How does the Ethics Commission Act in the Face of Medical Denialism?
The President of the OMC’s Central Medical Ethics Commission, Juan José Rodríguez Sendín, explained that, when a collegiate member is denounced, the provincial college opens an ethics file, that could remove the membership temporarily or permanently, and issues a warning. However, this would be the result of a violation of the code of ethics, which should always be followed. To be a collegiate member, all that’s needed is to show proof of the degree in medicine and pay the College’s fee.
Sendín clarifies that, whenever they receive complaints, the case is analyzed by the board of directors of each college. If the board considers that there may have been an offense, or if there’s an explicit complaint from a patient or another doctor, then the case goes to the provincial ethics commission. There, the doctor under investigation is heard, and a final report is submitted. The board of directors will use this report to decide if a disciplinary file is opened or not. If it is, then two collegiate members have to be appointed to write the file record, which would then go back to the board of directors to impose the appropriate sanctions, explained Rodríguez Sendín. According to Sendín, it’s a process that “provides maximum guarantees and can take up to seven months. The final result can be taken to Justice, if the person affected decides to do so.”
Sendín clarifies that they have already received the file from the Colegio Oficial de Médicos of Pontevedra, and, after its evaluation, it’ll be sent back to the College of Doctors, where the process would finish. The report could conclude that Prego violated the Ethics Code and that she should be sanctioned or have her membership temporarily or permanently removed.
Appearances on Television in the Hands of a Businessman Linked to the Vox Party
The ideology or political interests of these people to deny the pandemic are no secret. Public political and media support is currently limited. But in the case of Spain, we can confirm that members of “Doctors for the Truth Spain” have appeared on several occasions on the TV show El Toro TV, the former Intereconomía, owned by Julio Ariza Irigoyen.
This businessman was a legislator with the Popular Party in the Parliament of Catalonia between 1992 and 1999. In the general elections of April 2019, he was once again on the lists of a political party, in this case Vox, as the last member for candidacy in Barcelona. Vox defines its project as “the defense of Spain, family and life.” In the European Parliament, the party is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists.
In his Telegram channel with more than 42,000 followers, Ariza shared messages of Vox’s channel. He even interviewed on the set of El Toro TV the self-proclaimed “Doctors for the Truth.”
Promoting Conspiracy Theories on Electoral Fraud in Spain
Pilar Baselga, a well-known disseminator of conspiracy theories and a pandemic denier, participated in the press conference where the organization was introduced and in another event held at the Ecocentro venue in Madrid in January, 2021. Baselga also founded the Plataforma Elecciones Transparentes (Platform for Transparent Elections) to denounce, without evidence, alleged electoral fraud perpetrated in the last two general elections held in Spain in 2019. In the event that took place in January 2021, Ángel Ruiz Valdepeñas claimed that the Spanish Government was “illegal” and “illegitimate,” as “you very correctly denounced in Elecciones Transparentes.” Face masks were, obviously, nowhere to be found.
Besides Ruiz Valdepeñas, Prego and Martínez Albarracín, in the event of January 2021 also participated ophthalmologist Blanco Lario Elboj and doctor Luis Miguel de Benito. Deniers defended as treatments for COVID-19 and other illnesses chlorine dioxide (CDS) and MMS, a “gourmet bleach” and alleged miraculous solution that doesn’t cure anything and is very dangerous. Encouraging CDS as treatment against COVID-19 is a denialist theory, according to the Spanish Medical Association (read here a report about those who sell this toxic substance in Argentina and other Latin American countries).
Methodology: This research was conducted by tracking on social media interventions of members of “Doctors for the Truth,” especially on Natalia Prego’s Telegram channel, and the other platforms where she uploads her videos. Platforms like YouTube have deleted parts of those videos as “actions against COVID-19 disinformation.” This has kept us from advancing the investigation, especially regarding the early stages of the association. We’ve also used search engines and media outlets to find conferences and events. Maldita.es has also contacted all provincial medical colleges of which these people are members to know if they have any open files, and their outcomes, as well as the health systems of each Spanish autonomous community, to learn whether they are regulated under the public health system. Maldita.es has also contacted some of the venues that they booked to know if they paid for them, and how much.
Update: This article was updated on 05/19/2021 to include the sanction imposed by the Official College of Doctors of the Balearic Islands to Ángel Ruiz Valdepeñas.
This research is part of “The Disinformants,” a series of investigations about different actors who have disinformed during the pandemic conducted by LatamChequea, the Latin American fact-checkers network coordinated by Chequeado that includes editions from participating organizations and journalist Hugo Alconada Mon.
¿Te gustó esta nota?
Ayudanos a mantener este proyecto.