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 designed 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

“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, 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 latest 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.

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.”

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.

Jane Shim, director of the Stop Asian Hate Project, criticized Kennedy’s “dangerous rhetoric,” in comments to The Washington Post, calling his comments “irresponsible” and “hateful.” CBS News has reached out to the group but has not yet received a reply.

Kennedy attempted to respond to the criticism of his initial comments in a tweet shared on Saturday evening, 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 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.

“Enzymes like furin are not differentially compatible with different ethnicities,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, replied on Twitter. “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.”