The groundless conspiracy theory that vaccines contain microchips is believed by thousands.
The narrative has deep roots in the right-wing evangelical movement.
Prominent figures turbocharged the theory in the era of COVID-19, helping drive US vaccine hesitancy.
Back in August, the right-wing evangelical Mat Staver appeared on an hour-long livestream hosted by the World Prayer Network.
In it, he told listeners that vaccines for COVID-19 were not meant to save the world from the pandemic, but instead to radically depopulate it.
The groundless theory has no evidence at all to support it, but has proved durable all the same.
"What is involved in this is depopulation, population control to reduce the population of the planet, and to control everyone, and to do it by force and to have a tracking mechanism to determine whether or not you've had one of these particular injections," Staver said.
He linked the fictitious plot to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has become a hate figure for right-wing anti-vaccine activists during the pandemic.
In an emailed statement to Insider, Staver denied believing the microchip theory, but did not seek to reconcile that with the times he had publicly advocated it.
The belief that COVID-19 vaccines are being used to secretly implant tracking mechanisms or microchips has spread far and wide during the pandemic.
According to a survey by YouGov for The Economist magazine in July, about half those resistant to getting the shot believe the microchip claim. With about 80 million Americans still unvaccinated, that makes millions of believers in a version of of the conspiracy theory.
Some have traced the conspiracy theory back to a Q&A given by Gates on Reddit on March 18, 2020, in the early days of the pandemic.
He projected that that "digital certificates" would one day be used to identify who had recovered from the coronavirus, and who had been vaccinated. The reality of today's COVID passports is not far from this prediction.
His words were distorted by those who claimed they were evidence of a secret plan to monitor and control people, and gained currency from there.
But the conspiracy theory has older and deeper roots, experts have told Insider.
A network of right-wing Christian activists and preachers helped seed fears that public-health measures would one day be used as part of a plot to secretly monitor people.
It meant that there was fertile ground for conspiracy theorists to plant doubts about the vaccines developed during the pandemic. Multiple surveys suggest that Republicans and white evangelicals are among those least willing to get the shot, overlapping with the most receptive audience for the microchip theory.
Andrew Whitehead, an expert on the Christian right who teaches at Indiana University, said: "One reason some groups and individuals on the Christian right champion anti-vax views is their skepticism or even outright rejection of science as a trustworthy source of authority.
"In their view, science competes with the supremacy of Biblicist authority. Not any and all claims of science, though, just those they perceive to be religiously contested or politically motivated. Vaccines, and especially the COVID-19 vaccine, is in this realm."
Vaccines and the 'The Mark of the Beast'
Peter Montgomery, a senior researcher at People for the American Way, has for decades monitored right-wing Christian groups and their connections with the Republican Party.
He said that many on the Christian right believe that humanity is living through the end of days.
They see in public health measures such as vaccine passports evidence of the "Mark of the Beast", proof of widespread allegiance to Satan that predicts the apocalypse in the Bible.
"For many evangelicals who believe that we are living in the 'End Times', there's a strain of rhetoric and thinking out there about the vaccine and the idea of vaccine passports or businesses requiring people to be vaccinated," he said.
"They connect it all to the 'Mark of the Beast.'" An implanted microchip, on these lines of thinking, would be the ultimate example of such a mark.
It's a claim that he sees echoed in the rhetoric of Republican lawmakers who have opposed public-health measures.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in a video in March described Biden administration plans for a vaccine passport as "The Mark of the Beast."
-Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) March 30, 2021
As far back as a decade ago, Staver's Liberty Counsel, which provides legal support for those challenging federal laws on religious grounds, was drawing links between vaccines and microchip plots.
A Liberty Counsel attorney at a public event as far back as 2010 claimed that the Obama administration's swine flu (H1N1) vaccine could be part of a plot to implant microchips.
According to Montgomery, the student of the Christian right, the statement was a typical variant of the conspiracy theory that had circulated among right-wing evangelicals, which went on to be cited by preachers at pulpits, on radio shows, and on TV.
It emerged again during the pandemic, where it found a vast new audience.
Staver, he said, had been among the most prominent opponents of vaccines and other public-health measures as the coronavirus swept the US.
In April, Staver appeared on an evangelical podcast to claim that vaccines are part of a plot to "force the submission to the experimental gene therapy," an allusion to a conspiracy theory claiming the vaccines tamper with DNA.
A month later he was on the Voice of Christian Youth America radio station, where on its "CrossTalk" program, he claimed, groundlessly, that pregnant women are having miscarriages by being near vaccinated people.
Other right-wing Christians have also helped spread the microchips conspiracy theory.
An investigation in July by The Verge found that an online sermon by Baptist pastor Adam Fannin played a role in popularizing the theory in the early days of the pandemic.
And deep links between the right-wing evangelical movement and the QAnon conspiracy theory movement had also helped boost anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, said Joe Ondrak, head of investigations at LogicallyAI, a UK-based company that uses AI to track disinformation.
"The 'Mark of the Beast' gets heavily folded into QAnon conspiracy theories as well,' he said, noting that that both movements involve the belief that Satanic elites are plotting against ordinary Americans.
Staver in an emailed reply to questions from Insider denied believing that vaccines are used to implant microchips.
"This is false. That is not my opinion," he said.
On the issue of whether the vaccines cause infertility, he said that "it is unknown whether they cause infertility since this issue was not part of the clinical trials and the data will not be available for some time."
The CDC has said there is no evidence that the vaccines harm fertility, and a growing body of evidence that they do not.
The agency initially limited it advice on taking the vaccine while pregnant, but in August 2021 updated its position to unambiguously recommend it, citing new data.
Staver went on to argue that there were many credible reports of adverse reactions to the vaccines.
"We speak with many healthcare workers and doctors to learn about what they are seeing in addition to the data," he said, without giving any specifics.
"Of course not everyone has adverse events, but the adverse events cannot be ignored and must be investigated rather than merely discounting them."
Adverse effects are already subject to monitoring like that described by Staver.
The CDC noted that it, the FDA, and other agencies are monitoring such events. On occasion it has acted on them, prompting policies like the pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout in April, which was lifted after 11 days.
Read the original article on Business Insider