Since the beginning of the pandemic, corona-deniers have been trying to build an international network. But how well connected are they really?
Face masks produce hypoxia, vaccines modify our DNA, PCRs don’t work, coronavirus was created in a laboratory… These are some of the more than 1,000 false contents, hoaxes, and claims without evidence that we have debunked at Maldita.es since the coronavirus pandemic started more than two years ago. All this disinformation has shaped an ‘infodemic’ that has run parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of these hoaxes have been created and spread by the denialist group Médicos por la Verdad (Doctors for the Truth, in Spanish). A journalistic investigation by Maldita.es and Latam Chequea revealed that this organization has links with others alike in Latin America. Now, Maldita.es and CORRECTIV, both part of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), have joined forces to reveal the connections between COVID-19 disinformation groups in Spain and Germany.
The leaders of these groups in Germany and Spain are, respectively, Heiko Schöning and Natalia Prego, both doctors (although we have found no evidence that Schöning has ever worked as one). Both have attended several international events and have met at least six times since July 2020.
Doctors for the Truth origin: Heiko Schöning and Germany
Doctors for the Truth was created in Germany. In this country, Heiko Schöning (described as a “military doctor” at the anti-vaccine event World Freedom Forum webpage) created the association Ärzte für Aufklärung, literally ‘Doctors for Enlightenment’, during the spring of 2020, although he is no longer listed as a member or otherwise on their website. As early as March 2020, Schöning started spreading disinformation concerning Covid-19.
This group founded by Schöning has been very active in Germany. According to the German television channel Das Erste, the doctors of this group handed out certificates exempting citizens of the obligation to wear a mask upon request. As the German television explains, these documents were sent to anyone, regardless of their health status, even if they did not have a condition that prevented them from carrying it. The German police warned in August 2020 that these documents, which could be downloaded, did not exempt them from the obligation to wear a mask.
Schöning also founded the Außerparlamentarischer Corona-Untersuchungsausschuss (ACU) in July 2020 (Extra-parliamentary Coronavirus Investigation Committee, in German), where he takes the floor and discusses the pandemic with international guests on live videos for hours and thus drives the international networking of the Corona denier scene forward. He is also Vice President of the so-called World Freedom Alliance and a member of the World Doctors Alliance, two denialist associations with members from several countries. Schöning can be seen in different videos of this group.
Schöning was arrested in September 2020 at a demonstration in London by the Metropolitan Police, but he was released 22 hours later. The following month, Brexit Alliance Group MP David Kurten asked the Mayor of London about why he was arrested, but the councillor claimed that neither he nor the Metropolitan Police could comment on an ongoing investigation. The Berlin State Office for Health and Social Affairs has confirmed Maldita.es and CORRECTIV that Schöning “was licensed to practice medicine by LAGeSo on September 17th, 2004”, but there is no evidence that he worked as a doctor anywhere. CORRECTIV confronted Heiko Schöning with the research results and asked him for a statement, but he didn’t answer.
Schöning also spreads disinformation through his Telegram channel, with more than 10,000 followers. In 2021, he published a book titled Game Over COVID-19 | ANTHRAX, where he claims that the pandemic is a “previously planned crime” and asserts that there is a “global mafia” whose alleged conspiracies he describes. In addition, Schöning also has bank and PayPal accounts that he uses to ask his followers for money.
Natalia Prego: the equivalent of Schöning in Spain
If Heiko Schöning is at the origin of many of the groups responsible for the ‘infodemic’, his role in Spain is played by Natalia Prego, the founder of Doctors for the Truth there. Like Schöning, Prego plays a leading role in both national and international events. For example, she attended the presentations of other conspiracy groups in Spain, such as Psychologists for the Truth, as well as other similar events that took place abroad like the launching of Doctors for the Truth in Poland.
The relationship between Prego and Schöning can be traced back, at least, to the very creation of Doctors for the Truth in Spain. On July 25, 2020, this group of Spanish denialists who identify themselves as doctors presented itself in society with a press conference in Madrid in which the German leader also took part. Two months later, Prego registered the name with the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office.
But, before founding Doctors for the Truth, Prego had already created and spread hoaxes about COVID-19: on March 15, 2020, the first day of the coronavirus lockdown in Spain, audio recorded by her went viral. Prego criticized the isolation of the healthy population because, according to her, the “generalized isolation, due to sedentary lifestyle and total inaction, causes complications in pathologies”. She also stated that “the figures offered by the WHO do not justify the institutionalized social alarm that is being carried out”.
Maldita.es has already debunked this audio and spotted over 20 falsehoods spread by Prego. Some of her hoaxes assert that pregnant and postpartum women cannot be vaccinated (both debunked here), like children under 16 (here) or people with allergies (here).
She also states that asymptomatic people cannot spread COVID-19, that PCRs give many false positives and react to different families of viruses, and that masks cause many diseases, make us re-inhale CO2, and decrease oxygen levels in the blood.
Prego was fired from the private clinic where she worked
Prego worked in a private clinic in a town called Vilagarcía de Arousa (Pontevedra province, Spain), and she was fired after her first disinformation audio went viral. Maldita.es has contacted this clinic, which refused to comment on this matter. They have only pointed out: “We have no contact with Dr. Natalia Prego since her audio”.
In addition, the Official College of Doctors of Pontevedra, of which she is a member, announced its disagreement with Prego’s statements in a press release stating also that it had submitted a file to the Central Commission of Medical Deontology of Spain on her “allegedly denialist” statements due to their national impact. Isidro Lago, president of the Official College of Doctors of Pontevedra, explained that “the Central Commission of Medical Deontology has verified that there is a violation of the code of ethics by this doctor and on March 30, 2022, after a very long and guaranteed process for the person investigated, we have filed a proposal for sanction for Natalia Prego”. At the moment, this sanction is not public.
Like Schöning, Prego uses her Telegram channel (with more than 27,000 subscribers) to spread hoaxes about coronavirus, masks, and vaccines. She also published a book –Accepting the Challenge of Healing– in 2018, two years before the pandemic. Also, like her German counterpart, she has several bank accounts, PayPal, and crowdfunding websites through which she asks her followers for money.
Prego and Schöning have met at least six times since July 2020
The event held on July 25, 2020, was the first one where Prego and Schöning were seen together, but not the last. Seven days later, on August 1, Prego participated in a conference of the ACU (the counterpart of Doctors for the Truth in Germany) with Schöning in Berlin. Since then, they have co-participated in events and demonstrations in person in, at least, Sweden the Netherlands Spain and Hungary. Besides, they have appeared together at several online events. Schöning has also appeared through a recorded message in, at least, one Doctors for the Truth event in Spain.