Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson spoke alongside prominent national vaccine skeptics and proponents of unproven COVID-19 treatments at an Anchorage church over the weekend.
Though the Anchorage Health Department has encouraged vaccination, this was Bronson’s most pronounced public embrace of vaccine skepticism and unproven treatments. Bronson’s participation was not announced ahead of time. He spoke at the conference for about 10 minutes. Another speaker said Bronson helped behind-the-scenes with the summit, but the mayor’s office said Bronson did not help plan the event.
The event, called the Alaska Early Treatment Medical Summit, featured hours of talks on Saturday and was organized by an anonymous group called the Alaska COVID Alliance.
Throughout the conference, speakers repeated the idea that COVID-19 vaccines are not effective and not safe, and promoted unproven treatments including ivermectin and vitamin supplements.
Bronson told the crowd that his doctor and his doctor’s wife suggested bringing the group of speakers up to Alaska.
“For some, you know, political reasons we just didn’t want my fingerprints all over it because what we needed is we needed doctors who don’t agree with this to come and hear this, unfiltered by the media, no condemnation, simply get up and hear what we believe is the truth,” he said.
Bronson’s spokesperson Corey Allen Young wrote in an email to Alaska Public Media that Bronson was contacted by event organizers but did not want to be involved in the planning “because of his political office.” Young said that no city fufands or staff were used for the event.
“Because some people disagree with the topics being discussed, they believe that Mayor Bronson should not be allowed to participate, and that should not be the case,” Young wrote. “If Mayor Dave Bronson is the mayor of all people, he should be allowed to attend all types of public forums.”
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services declined to comment on the summit, and top state health officials said last week that they wouldn’t be participating in the event.
A video of the event posted by a conservative news blog shows Bronson was introduced by Richard Urso, a Texas ophthalmologist who is a proponent of using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration says the drug can cause serious heart rhythm problems. Though it was considered as a treatment for COVID-19 early in the pandemic, the FDA has since revoked its emergency use authorization after a large, randomized clinical trial in hospitalized patients found it showed no benefit.
“I don’t want to say this because maybe he doesn’t want me to say this, but he’s probably the reason we were able to make this happen,” said Urso about Bronson. “I’d say he’s helped organize a lot of what’s happening behind the scenes. And I want us to, if you can, give a warm welcome to your very own mayor, Mayor Bronson.”
Alaska’s COVID-19 rates continue to rank among the highest in the country, according to data compiled by The New York Times. Bronson is not vaccinated himself and has referred to the vaccine as “experimental.” He has been infected with COVID-19 and says he has natural immunity to the virus. He’s been quarantined at least twice as mayor after exposure to COVID-19, once after two members of his administration tested positive and then, last week, after the head of the Anchorage Community Development Authority tested positive.
Bronson opposes face mask requirements and was not wearing one while speaking at the weekend conference. Videos show nearly all of the attendees were unmasked, despite an indoor mask mandate in Anchorage.
“I think history is going to judge these doctors, these professionals very, very well,” Bronson told the crowd. “And it’s going to judge other folks, to include health care professionals, quite poorly. I just decided I was going to be on the right side of history on this.”
Bronson’s involvement in the summit — and the fact that it wasn’t publicized — faced strong criticism from some.
Dr. Tom Hennessy, a longtime Alaska epidemiologist, said it didn’t make sense for Bronson, a retired pilot, to endorse vaccine skepticism and unproven treatments as the “best science.”
“That’s really way outside of his area of expertise,” said Hennessy. “I wouldn’t ever imagine showing up at an aviation meeting and proposing to talk about Boeing 757 safety as a medical doctor. It’s just so out of my lane. And that’s what this appeared to be.”
Hennessy did not attend the conference in person, but watched a recording online.
He said he was concerned the conference did not appear to have accreditation standards, provide disclosures about the speakers’ financial arrangements, or clearly state they would be discussing “off-label” treatments not approved by the FDA. Many of the speakers did not appear to have backgrounds related to the topics they were discussing, he said. He said speakers were “clearly anti-vaccine” and criticized their discussion of “early treatment” options that run counter to public health recommendations.
“They were offering a version of early treatment for COVID that does not fit with any established medical treatment that is out there,” he said. “And in fact, in some instances, discussion of drugs like hydroxychloroquine, where the Food and Drug Administration has actually come out and said: ‘This should not be used for COVID.’ Same with ivermectin.”
Speakers at the summit included researcher Li-Meng Yan from China who published a paper last fall claiming coronavirus is a Chinese bioweapon. Her paper has since been challenged after some of its contents were revealed to have been copied from a website linked to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.
“This is the best science available and I know the media disparages them,” Bronson said during the summit. “These people have sacrificed a lot. Dr. Yan is here. You’ll get introduced, I think, to her later. And literally, we have a lot of security in this room because the Chinese government is after her because of what she’s going to tell you today. They don’t want her talking.”
Another guest, Dr. Robert Malone, was involved with the development of mRNA vaccines in the 1980s. That technology is used in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Malone now claims that the vaccines actually make the disease worse, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is false. A profile in The Atlantic magazine says that Malone is careful to distance himself from the “anti-vax” label, but he has appeared alongside people who have spread vaccine misinformation.
Bronson said that he is not anti-vaccine or anti-mask, but is instead against mandates, which he said cause too much division.
“I’m not anti-vax. I’m not anti-mask. I’m simply anti-mandates,” he said.
He also discussed the series of combative Anchorage Assembly meetings he was involved in where his administration attempted to stall the body’s consideration of a city-wide mask mandate by encouraging days of heated public testimony. Several members of the public were arrested, some in the anti-mask contingent used the Star of David symbol, which was widely condemned by the Jewish community and made national news. Members of Bronson’s administration were diagnosed with COVID-19 during the proceedings and at least one regular attendee of the meetings, who was against the mandate, has since died of the disease.
“I’m looked at as a guy who has really stirred the pot,” said Bronson. “And I don’t think I have. I may have made a couple mistakes when moving the plexiglass shield or something like that. But that’s a different issue. I’ve stood up twice in front of the Assembly and said: ‘Folks, do me a favor, calm this down, we need to get through the process. Everybody needs to speak.'”
It’s unclear how many people attended the conference. At one point during his remarks, the mayor asked how many of the audience members were health care workers.
“Oh. A lot more than I thought,” he said. “It looks to me like about three-quarters of you are health care professionals.”
During the event, John Nolte, an Anchorage physician, said the idea for the summit began at a conference of the Association of Physicians and Surgeons, a conservative medical group, several weeks ago where he met Urso. Nolte said he played a role in bringing guests to Alaska, and also thanked Michael Chambers, former Anchorage health director David Morgan and Ray Kreig for their help.
This story has been updated.
Alaska Public Media’s Kavitha George contributed to this report.