Informed Consent Action Network was among the best funded groups in the anti-vaccination movement prior to the pandemic. The nonprofit raised $1.4 million in 2017. Annual revenue in 2021 was more than $13.3 million, according to tax filings.
The group’s founder, Del Bigtree, hosts a podcast, The HighWire, in which he discusses the group’s work. During the pandemic, the show released almost daily episodes, featuring Bigtree criticism of the lockdowns and masks, unproven treatments touted such as the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and doubted its efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
Bigtree told POLITICO that its audience grew during the pandemic, from thousands of weekly listeners to millions. “The pandemic played a direct role in our conversation in many ways,” he said.
The growth came despite major distribution platforms such as Facebook and YouTube removing The Highwire, citing misinformation policies.
It also sparked a flood of grassroots donations. Bigtree said smaller, recurring donors now provide much of the group’s funding. Most donations to the Informed Consent Action Network, documented in tax documents, are made through donor-advised funds, a scheme often used by wealthy benefactors to keep their identities private.
The group was not alone in its growth during the pandemic. Longtime anti-vaccine group Children’s Health Defense, the nonprofit founded in 2011 as the World Mercury Project, also saw its revenues soar. The group, which is led by establishment Democratic presidential candidate Kennedy, saw its revenues rise from just over $1 million in 2018 to more than $15 million in 2021, according to the nonprofit’s federal tax filings.
These figures do not include the group’s smaller state chapters, most of which have been established since 2020. (The largest of the subgroups, a California chapter, reported $1.2 million in revenue in 2021.)
As the nonprofit’s revenues increased, so did Kennedy’s compensation. Children’s Health Defense paid him about $500,000 a year in 2022 and 2021, according to his personal financial disclosures and the group’s tax returns, compared to $345,000 in 2020 and $131,000 in 2017. The nonprofit salary was still a small portion of Kennedy’s total income; his personal financial disclosure, filed as part of his presidential run, reported $7.8 million in income in 2022, most of which came from his work for his environmental law firm.
Kennedy’s presidential campaign referred questions back to Children’s Health Defense, but the nonprofit did not respond to several messages and an emailed list of questions.
Unlike political committees, nonprofits are largely not required to disclose their funding sources or as much detail about how they spend their money. Tax returns occasionally show contributions from other foundations or grants from the groups, but much of their finances are shrouded in secrecy.
However, some effects of the increased turnover are clearly visible in the group’s public activities. Bigtree said the Informed Consent Action Network had been able to hire more lawyers and scientists, with staff numbers more than doubling compared to pre-pandemic levels. Children’s Health Defense has expanded its operations into Europe, Canada and Australia, and has begun translating some of its materials into languages including Spanish, French and Italian.
Both Children’s Health Defense and the Informed Consent Action Network have filed new lawsuits, Freedom of Information Act requests and petitions with agencies including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. While the Mississippi lawsuit was a notable victory, many of the efforts, such as an Informed Consent Action Network petition to the FDA to revoke approval of a version of the polio vaccine, have little chance of success, Dorit Reiss said, a professor at the FDA. the UC Hastings College of Law, which specializes in vaccine law.
But such petitions still consume organizational time and resources, and fuel the groups’ public relations efforts. Responses to FOIA requests can be used to amplify anti-vaccine topics regardless of context.
“They use that to go fishing, to find evidence of a conspiracy,” Reiss said.
Organized nonprofits, with their fundraising, websites and lawsuits, remain just one part of an amorphous anti-vaccine ecosystem.
But groups that predate the pandemic have provided a “template” for newer anti-vax efforts, said Gorski, the oncologist. Longstanding myths about previous vaccines were used to cast doubt on the Covid-19 vaccine. And questions about the newly developed Covid-19 vaccine became a gateway to the broader anti-vaccine movement.
“There’s less and less difference between old school and new school anti-vaxxers,” Gorski said. “New anti-vaxxers are using the same old conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.”