TV stations across the US owned by Sinclair Television will this weekend run an interview with a conspiracy theorist who claims baselessly that Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, created the coronavirus behind the current pandemic.
Related: A disgraced scientist and a viral video: how a Covid conspiracy theory started
Dr Judy Mikovits, a former research scientist, is behind the widely discredited Plandemic video, which makes a string of false and outlandish claims including that any coronavirus vaccine will kill millions and that beaches should not be closed because the sand and ocean will somehow treat Covid-19.
Fauci is the 79-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He has served six presidents but Donald Trump has sought to keep him off television, called him “alarmist” and frequently undermined his work.
The US is in the grip of a worsening coronavirus outbreak in which more than 4.1m cases have been recorded and more than 145,000 people have died.
Mikovits’ lawyer, Larry Klayman, also appeared on Sinclair’s America This Week with the former Fox News host Eric Bolling. The interview was posted online before broadcast.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors far-right groups in the US, Klayman, the founder of the Judicial Watch, is “a pathologically litigious attorney and professional gadfly notorious for suing everyone from Iran’s supreme leader to his own mother”.
On Bolling’s show, Klayman and Mikovits said they planned to sue Fauci because, Mikovits claimed, in the last decade the doctor “manufactured” and shipped coronaviruses to Wuhan, China, the origin of the pandemic.
Bolling told CNN he did not “know of any video [Mikovits] was in prior to or after appearing on my show” and said: “Frankly, I was shocked when she made the accusation.”
The host also said he had questioned Mikovits’ claim, which on air he called “hefty”, and had added Dr Nicole Saphier, a Fox News contributor, to the show in order to provide balance.
“I asked our producers to add Saphier to the show for the express purpose of debunking the conspiracy theory,” he told CNN. “I believe viewers see that I did not and do not endorse [Mikovits’] theory.”
Saphier said it was “highly unlikely” Fauci made the coronavirus. But she also said it was possible the virus was made in a laboratory.
Leading Trump allies have pushed that claim as the administration seeks to blame China for the pandemic. Experts say the disease originated in a wet market, where live wild animals are sold for food.
Speaking to the Guardian in May, Professor Eric Oliver, a University of Chicago political scientist and author of Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics, said medical conspiracy theories were the most widely circulated and believed.
“This sort of contagious disease that’s invisible makes people extremely apprehensive,” he said, adding that the coronavirus pandemic is “a profoundly displacing event and the uncertainty and anxiety it has generated in health, the economy and politics are just really deep.
“Some people are primed to seek out some sort of simple answer to very complex political and health issues and into that void conspiracy theories rush right in.”
Sinclair offers a considerable platform, through TV stations across the US.
The company’s links to the Trump administration have come under scrutiny, for example when in 2018 local news anchors were instructed to read an identical script criticising “fake” news stories.
Its chairman, David D Smith, has said that in 2016 he told Trump: “We are here to deliver your message.”