Watch CBS News

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. condemned over false claims that COVID-19 was "ethnically targeted"

RFK Jr. condemned over false COVID claims
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. condemned over false COVID-19 claims 04:42

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is facing widespread criticism from political leaders and civil rights organizations after a video surfaced of him making false claims that COVID-19 was "ethnically targeted" to attack certain ethnic groups while sparing Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people — a conspiracy theory that drew accusations of antisemitism and racism.

"COVID-19. There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately," Kennedy said at a recent dinner in New York City. The remarks were videotaped and first published by the New York Post on Saturday. 

"COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese," he continued, adding, "We don't know whether it was deliberately targeted or not but there are papers out there that show the racial or ethnic differential and impact." 

Kennedy later posted a video statement on Sunday, saying in part: "Nobody has suggested that these were deliberately engineered changes and I certainly don't believe that they were deliberately engineered," but calling it "kind of a proof of concept that you can develop bioweapons that will attack certain ethnicities." 

Kennedy, a former environmental attorney and a nephew of President John F. Kennedy, announced in April that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, in a challenge to President Biden. He has over the last 15 years become an outspoken voice of the anti-vaccine movement and a known conspiracy theorist whose claims have brought criticism from public health officials and his relatives alike. 

His remarks prompted a range of leading Democrats to speak out.

"These are deeply troubling comments and I want to make clear that they do not represent the views of the Democratic Party," Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, tweeted on Saturday.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted Kennedy's "reprehensible anti-semitic and anti-Asian comments," adding, "Such dangerous racism and hate have no place in America, demonstrate him to be unfit for public office, and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms."

Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida said Kennedy's claims boiled down to "vile antisemitic tropes and Sinophobia" and "insulted countless families who lost loved ones to the virus," while Rep. Ted Lieu of California pointed out, "Millions and millions of people died from COVID-19 worldwide, including Americans who were Jewish or of Chinese descent."

"If you still support the wacky, narcissistic, racist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., then that says more about you than it does about him," Lieu said.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey called Kennedy "a disgrace to the Kennedy name and the Democratic Party" in a tweet responding to the video. 

"For the record, my whole family, who is Jewish, got Covid," Gottheimer wrote. "Speaker McCarthy and Jim Jordan should disinvite this antisemite from testifying before Congress and spewing his misinformation and hate." (Kennedy is scheduled to testify Thursday before the GOP-led House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.)

The Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization that fights antisemitism and extremism, also denounced Kennedy's comments.

"The claim that COVID-19 was a bioweapon created by the Chinese or Jews to attack Caucasians and Black people is deeply offensive and feeds into sinophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories about COVID-19 that we have seen evolve over the last three years," a spokesperson for the organization said Sunday in an email.

Manjusha P. Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance, said the organizations "categorically condemn" Kennedy's "reckless, harmful remarks," citing research that shows how language used by political leaders can influence everyday racism and discriminatory policies.

"Dangerous rhetoric rooted in misinformation and bigotry must not be normalized. As the 2024 election cycle ramps up, Asian American communities are rightfully concerned politicians will continue to double down on anti-Asian rhetoric to rile up their base," Kulkarni told CBS News in a statement. "Our research shows that when political figures use anti-Asian rhetoric, it inspires acts of racism and discrimination against Asian people in the U.S."

Jane Shim, director of the Stop Asian Hate Project, also criticized Kennedy's "dangerous rhetoric," in comments to The Washington Post, calling his comments "irresponsible" and "hateful."

Kennedy attempted to respond to the criticism of his initial comments in a tweet shared on Saturday night, where he said the New York Post's "story is mistaken."

But that message repeated most of the same false theories Kennedy was heard sharing in the video, including one that mirrors debunked Russian propaganda linked to the war in Ukraine, which claims the U.S. is "developing ethnically targeted bioweapons." Kennedy also linked to a scientific study from July 2020 that, he claimed, showed how certain properties of the virus made "ethnic Chinese, Finns and Ashkenazi Jews" less susceptible to it than Black or Caucasian people. 

Scientists went on to discredit his statements about the study, which was genetic research conducted early in the pandemic seeking clues to the risk factors for severe symptoms. 

One of the authors of that study told CBS News their findings "never supported" what Kennedy claimed, adding, "This type of misinterpretation will hurt academic research to help us end pandemic."

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, commented on Twitter: "Enzymes like furin are not differentially compatible with different ethnicities," referring to an aspect of the virus referenced by Kennedy. "Jewish or Chinese protease consensus sequences are not a thing in biochemistry, but they are in racism and antisemitism."

Kennedy's latest comments were not the first time he's sparked outrage with comments about COVID-19 and Jewish people. In a 2022 speech, he compared public health measures to "fascism" and claimed, "Even in Hitler's Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did."

"These analogies are historically specious and hurtful to Jews and, frankly, to anyone who has a historical memory of who the Nazis were and what they did," Aryeh Tuchman of the ADL's Center on Extremism told The Associated Press at the time. "Anything in the pursuit of his agenda."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.