Thomas Cowan won’t be practicing medicine with a medical license anytime soon. He’s known for spreading all kinds of unproven conspiracy theories on the internet and within the San Francisco community. His critics have been arguing that his ideas can put patients at risk, especially when it comes to COVID-19.
Practicing on the Fringe
Cowan had been running an alternative treatment and wellness center in the Bay Area up until last July. The center didn’t accept insurance, sold nutritional supplements, and offered $375 consultations to patients. During his career, Cowan also authored several fringe medical textbooks that continue to sell on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In one book, he questions whether viruses can cause disease.
These books continue to show up at the top of the search results when looking for virus-related texts online. A recent study from Bloomberg news shows that when you type “vaccine” into the search bar on Amazon and other book e-commerce websites, you will see dozens of books questioning their efficacy. In fact, the top five results on Amazon all promote anti-inoculation conspiracy theories.
Thomas Cowan’s book, The Contagion Myth: Why Viruses (including Coronavirus) Are Not the Cause of Disease, remains the top search result on Amazon.
In 2017, the California State Medical Board penalized Cowan with a five-year probation after he prescribed unapproved medications to a breast cancer patient.
Dangerous Conspiracy Theories
When the coronavirus pandemic first started ramping up in the spring of last year, Cowan was one of the first to claim that 5G internet users were the cause of COVID-19. He shared his theories in a YouTube video that quickly went viral.
YouTube soon removed the video for misinformation, but only after it was shared by a few prominent celebrities, including actors Woody Harrelson and John Cusack.
Public health officials say the so-called 5G conspiracy theory has been particularly difficult to fight online. It seems to have taken on a life of its own.
Several Chinese companies, including Huawei, have started offering what’s known as 5G technology, but the U.S., Australia, and parts of Europe have since banned this technology citing possible cybersecurity risks, which have nothing to do with the coronavirus.
As a result of these conspiracy theories, several 5G towers have been attacked or vandalized since the start of the pandemic, including those in Europe and Latin America.
In the “myth-busting” section on the World Health Organization’s website, the agency says the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 cannot travel over radio waves or mobile networks. Several counties with the virus do not have 5G technology, which puts another hole in this theory.
Other fringe conspiracy theorists have suggested that 5G waves can lead to cancer. There is no evidence to support this claim.
Cowan was one of the many licensed medical professionals who were spreading these unproven theories online. Researchers believe having an “MD” next to a person’s name can help fuel these theories. People seem to be more willing to listen to these ideas if the messenger appears qualified and well-educated.
Anne Rimoin, a UCLA epidemiologist, says providers like Cowan further erode the county’s faith in the medical system. “Social media amplifies misinformation in a way we’ve never seen before,” Rimoin said.
“These theories not based in science now have a conduit to get out to the world so easily. When you have confusion, people make bad decisions, and we have to divert precious resources towards stamping out misinformation. It doesn’t just hurt the believer. It hurts everybody.”
No License, No Practice
Last year, Cowan wrote on his practice’s website that he would “relinquish” his medical license to the state medical board, while reemerging as an “unlicensed health coach.” He wrote that he plans to move to the east coast to be closer to his family, where he will continue to sell herbal supplements online.
He wrote at the time:
“I simply see too much to be willing to function as a physician in the medical system at this time. I will no longer be able to order tests, write prescriptions, make diagnoses or offer treatment plans…I am looking forward to a new way of interacting with my friends, previously known as patients.”
Records show that Cowan officially surrendered his medical license on December 7th of last year. The state agency, which regulates and disciplines California doctors, made the decision to make the license surrender public last Thursday.