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Nevada Today

Nevada Today is a nonpartisan, independently owned and operated site dedicated to providing up-to-date news and smart analysis on the issues that impact Nevada's communities and businesses.

COVID-19FeaturesHealthNews and informationPolitical AnalysisThe Economy

This Week in Corona Scams: Pyramid Pilot

COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccines, vaccine science, health care

This Week in Corona Scams, a self-proclaimed airplane pilot declared, “They’re threatening my life.” In one TikTok video, he set the internet ablaze. But what if this pilot is not really who he claims to be? What if this pilot had ulterior motives to complain about COVID-19 vaccine mandates and declare common cause with the anti-vaccine movement?

But wait, there’s more! This Week in Corona Scams, we reveal the truth about a viral video that basically amounts to an epic mashup of nearly everything we’ve been warning about throughout this entire series.

As we’ve been warning the whole damned time, check the facts before you share that viral video!
This Week in Corona Scams, corona scams, COVID-19, Shawn Andrew Walker, MLM, Anti-MLM
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Early this week, a self-identified pilot broke the internet with a TikTok video where he complained, “They’re threatening my life,” because his employer allegedly forced him to “choose between putting food on the table for my family and my freedom of choice”. Once a slew of right-wing “influencers”, including an ex-journalist who turned to the “wingnut welfare” circuit after being exposed for plagiarism, promoted this pilot’s TikTok video on Twitter and Facebook, he really went viral. This sudden burst of internet buzz culminated in the pilot’s appearance on Fox News’ Fox & Friends morning show on Tuesday, where he labeled vaccine mandates as “dictatorship”.

Last weekend, Southwest Airlines began to cancel a large amount of flights across the nation. As of Tuesday, Southwest has cancelled over 2,000 flights. Southwest corporate management initially cast blame on “weather and air traffic control issues”, while the pilots’ union and some outside airline industry experts point to Southwest potentially overloading their “point-to-point route network” to the point where a small handful of flight delays can throw much of the airline’s flight schedule into chaos due to minimal staffing and the lack of spare aircraft. Interestingly, both management and the union have flat-out dismissed claims that Southwest’s incoming COVID-19 vaccine mandate caused any of these flight cancellations.

Enter this suddenly viral TikTok video. This pilot’s “They’re threatening my life” video not only added more fuel to the towering inferno of false conspiracy theories on the Southwest flight cancellations, but it’s also being cited to justify the burgeoning far-right crusade against vaccine mandates, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s (R) latest attempt to ban any and all vaccine mandates – including those emanating from the federal government and private companies. We’ll dig more into the sketchy rationale behind Abbott’s executive order later. But first, we need to uncover the messy truth behind the glossy veneer of this viral TikTok video.

Who is this man behind the TikTok video that got everyone talking? Spoiler alert: He is NOT a Southwest Airlines pilot.

On Monday, Rolling Stone identified the suddenly viral pilot as Shawn Andrew Walker. Shortly thereafter, the YouTuber “Just a Lazy Gamer” found out some more about Shawn Andrew Walker. We then did our own research and learned some more about the seemingly mysterious pilot.

On his LinkedIn pages Shawn Andrew Walker claims to have worked at American Airlines since 2004, but there’s no official record indicating whether or not he still works at American. (According to Rolling Stone, American Airlines declined to “confirm or disconfirm that he is currently a pilot with their company”, but we did find a TikTok video dated July 3, 2021, featuring Walker wearing an American Airlines lanyard and uniform in an airplane.) Meanwhile, one of Walker’s LinkedIn pages and his Facebook fan page include links to a now defunct website: “CopySkillz.com”. Thankfully, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has cached archives of the site that show us how Walker offered “training courses” and a “free launch plan” for copywriting and website development.

Where have we seen this before? Oh yes, that’s right: In past editions of this series, we’ve explored the world of “business gurus” who often feature “free resources”, yet these “free resources” function as trap doors for their sales funnels that direct customers to buy more and more of their “success building” products and programs.

In case this story isn’t weird enough, here’s where we return to the land of inverted funnel-shaped companies.
This Week in Corona Scams, corona scams, COVID-19, Shawn Andrew Walker, MLM, Anti-MLM
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

When we take an even closer look at Shawn Andrew Walker’s Facebook page, we notice something else – something else that we’ve covered in depth in this series. Walker sold himself as a “home business coach”. Walker previously ran a website (circa 2014) – “MLMYourWayFree.com” – where he promised, “Discover A Simple System You Can Start Using Right Away to Generate More Leads, Position Yourself As a Leader, Create Immediate Cashflow [sic] AND Build Your Primary Business on Auto-Pilot.” One of Walker’s LinkedIn pages even indicates his prior involvement with a multi-level marketing (MLM) company by the name of LifeVantage.

If you’re wondering why LifeVantage might sound familiar, Truth in Advertising (or TINA.org) has us covered. Since January 2018, LifeVantage has contended with a class-action lawsuit in federal court where plaintiffs allege that LifeVantage operates as an illegal pyramid scheme. Though federal courts dismissed some of the plaintiffs’ claims on antitrust violations, patent fraud, and unjust enrichment in 2019 and 2020, plaintiffs’ core claim alleging a pyramid scheme and some securities violation claims continue to proceed.

This Week in Corona Scams, corona scams, COVID-19, Shawn Andrew Walker, MLM, Anti-MLM
Screenshot by Andrew Davey
This Week in Corona Scams, corona scams, COVID-19, Shawn Andrew Walker, MLM, Anti-MLM
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Why is LifeVantage facing this lawsuit? In 2017, TINA.org dove deep into LifeVantage promoters’ social media feeds and found a treasure trove of false and misleading income claims – claims of “financial freedom”, extra retirement savings, “unlimited income potential”, and additional “rewards”. In 2016, TINA.org documented LifeVantage’s claims about their “wellness” products and found a treasure trove of false medical claims – claims about “curing” Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and much more. In April 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent LifeVantage a warning letter about the false medical claims they made about their flagship dietary supplement Protandim. According to the evidence that plaintiffs have filed in the class-action lawsuit, LifeVantage’s top executives knowingly run their “business” in a way where LifeVantage distributors are the company’s primary customers, and where the vast majority of distributors earn little to no net income. 

Ever since the FDA’s Protandim warning letter and the initial filing of the class-action lawsuit, LifeVantage has apparently continued these “business practices”. When we peruse the reliably illuminating records of the r/AntiMLM Reddit community (or subreddit), we can find some more recent examples of LifeVantage encouraging predatory behavior in order to recruit new members. As we’ve been warning on these pages for over two years, the entire MLM industry is based on unethical and downright predatory “business ethos”, and LifeVantage seems to be just another example of such.

Finally, we land here. What’s the company behind the TikTok video that broke the internet this week?
This Week in Corona Scams, corona scams, COVID-19, Shawn Andrew Walker, MLM, Anti-MLM
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Though Shawn Andrew Walker’s social media pages suggest that he’s no longer active in LifeVantage, they also suggest that LifeVantage may have inspired Walker to launch his current business. Since December 2020, Shawn Andrew Walker has owned and operated CellSauce LLC

As we can see from the company’s TikTok account – yes, the same TikTok account where Walker posted his “They’re threatening my life” video – CellSauce sells “alternative medicine” dietary supplements. In his other videos, Walker shows off his motocross skills, Walker cooks while shirtless, Walker claims he “proved the white coats wrong”, and Walker makes multiple unsubstantiated medical claims about CellSauce’s products. We can find even more of Walker’s unsubstantiated medical claims about CellSauce’s products on CellSauce’s YouTube channel.

@_dr_panda_

cellsaucenutrition … que the violins

♬ original sound – This Panda bites hard

As eye-popping and jaw-dropping as Walker’s medical claims appear, this is far from rare. Since 1994, the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have jointly regulated dietary supplements, but they’ve had to do so under limited authority and a set of lax rules that provide ample loopholes for supplement companies to sell products that are not scientifically tested for consumer safety and not scientifically proven to do what these companies claim their products do. OpenSecrets detailed in 2019 how the “alternative wellness” supplement industry beefed up their lobbying and other political influence operations to ensure continuing lax federal oversight, and Stitcher’s and Little Everywhere‘s highly acclaimed podcast series The Dream dedicated their second season in late 2019 and early 2020 to exposing the murky reality behind the glitzy and glamorous veneer of the “alternative wellness” industry.

As we’ve been warning the whole damned time, “Corona Scammers” take advantage of people’s fear of COVID-19, people’s frustration over America’s frequent struggles to contain COVID-19, people’s pre-existing distrust of “the establishment”, and people’s desperate search for “cures” and solutions to peddle their nostrums. In so many ways, the tall tales of Shawn Andrew Walker and CellSauce reveal the dangers of basing critical medical and financial decisions on how #based a viral video appears. Just because someone flexes with his six-pack abs, his motocross skills, and his pilot uniform does not mean this someone is medically qualified to recommend “alternative medicine” or weigh in on vaccine science.

“The best way to protect yourself against long-term health consequences is actually to get vaccinated.” 
– U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, during the October 13, 2021, White House COVID-19 Briefing
Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Now that we have the “scammy” part of this story covered, let’s jump into the medical science. During yesterday’s White House COVID-19 Briefing, a reporter asked NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci about some airline pilots’ opposition to their employers’ and the federal government’s vaccination requirements. This reporter also noted these pilots’ “concern” over how the COVID-19 vaccines could impair their physical fitness.

Dr. Fauci responded, “On the basis of literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of vaccinations that we’ve had, the safety of these vaccines have been clearly established.” Indeed, contrary to Shawn Andrew Walker’s and other influencers’ claims about “vaccine injury”, we’ve had ample evidence for quite some time of the safety and the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, the COVID-19 vaccines we currently have available are more thoroughly regulated for safety and medicinal benefit than CellSauce and other dietary supplements (see above).

Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

In addition to Fauci, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy weighed in during yesterday’s briefing: “If pilots get COVID-19, the consequences to their health can be significant. The more we’ve learned about COVID, we’ve learned that it not only impacts the lungs, but it can impact the nervous system, the cardiovascular system. It can impact the kidneys. It can impact many systems in our body. This is a serious infection. So, the best way to protect yourself against long-term health consequences is actually to get vaccinated.”

There’s plenty more we need to learn about Long COVID, but we already have plenty of evidence indicating that COVID-19 carries severe risks – risks of death, fatigue, organ damage, depression, and more. As Dr. Fauci put it yesterday, “We know that anywhere from 10% to 30% of people who get COVID, even when they recover from the organ system issues of COVID, they can get what’s called ‘Long COVID’. […] Just to underscore what Dr. Murthy said, getting COVID is far, far worse than getting vaccinated for absolutely certain.”

“It’s straightforward: People want to work, shop, and visit where they feel safe.” 
– White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients, during the October 13, 2021, White House COVID-19 Briefing
Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Finally, let’s jump back to the matter of the airlines and the vaccine mandates. As much as Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other far-right politicians label vaccination requirements as “overreach” and “tyranny”, there’s a major reason why a growing number of public and private employers are deploying such mandates. As White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients pointed out during yesterday’s briefing, “These vaccination requirements have increased vaccination rates by 20-plus percentage points, with organizations routinely seeing their share of fully vaccinated workers rise above 90 percent.” He then added that since President Joe Biden began to announce federal vaccine mandates in July, “The number of eligible Americans who are unvaccinated has decreased by about one third — from 97 million down to 66 million individuals.”

Zients later declared, “It’s straightforward: People want to work, shop, and visit where they feel safe.” Or as we’ve previously detailed on these pages, public health and economic well-being go hand-in-hand. As long as we continue to have to worry about additional waves of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, we will continue to have trouble convincing more people to return to physical offices, book more vacations, schedule more business conferences, and tend to the very economic issues that Abbott and other far-right politicians feign “concern” about. 

COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccines, vaccine science, health care, travel
Photo by Andrew Davey

As for the alleged “government overreach” of vaccine mandates, these rules actually stand on solid legal ground. But due to our increasingly hyper-politicized federal courts, we just don’t know yet how the courts will rule on these current public and private sector vaccine mandates. This returns us to the matter of politics and public health. As much as we may want our imaginations to fly through wondrous worlds of magical thinking, we won’t land this plane of pandemic pain until we bring medical science on board as our co-pilot.

If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.

The cover photo was taken by me.

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