Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. faced accusations of making antisemitic and racist remarks over the weekend after he was recorded citing a false conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was "targeted to" certain ethnicities while Chinese people and Jews of European descent were more immune.
Despite the ongoing investigation into exactly how the pandemic started, U.S. intelligence agencies, health officials and leading experts all agree that evidence does not indicate the virus was engineered.
In a brief phone interview with ABC News on Sunday, Kennedy insisted he was "appalled." He said his comments about immunity had been misunderstood, specifically over how a news report implied he was talking about some ethnicities being "spared."
He also invoked his famous family's history of supporting Israel.
"My father was in Israel prior to the creation of the Israeli state and spent his lifetime fighting for Israel, fighting for its right to exist and for a strong alliance with the United States," he said, adding, "My own campaign, one of the primary themes of this campaign is to bring the Democratic Party back to its traditional support for Israel. There's nobody who is running for president today who is a stronger champion for Israel than myself."
The New York Post on Saturday originally published a roughly two-minute clip of Kennedy's conspiracy theory comments, made during what the paper described as a press dinner in New York City on Tuesday.
In the recording, Kennedy can be heard making a series of false and misleading claims, including saying, "We don’t know whether it [COVID-19] was deliberately targeted or not, but there are papers out there that show the racial or ethnic differential and impact."
"There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted," specifically against Caucasian and Black people, Kennedy can be heard saying in the video.
Health officials worldwide have determined the virus disproportionally killed some groups of people not because of their race but because of underlying health inequities
An attorney and activist-turned-candidate, Kennedy has repeatedly spread conspiracy theories and misinformation on public health issues.
Kennedy’s recent COVID-19 conspiracy theory remarks were quickly criticized, including by the Anti-Defamation League, one of the leading Jewish civil rights organizations in the U.S.
A spokesperson for the ADL told ABC News that Kennedy could be feeding "into sinophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories about COVID-19 that we have seen evolve over the last three years."
The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, Ted Deutch, wrote on social media that "Robert Kennedy Jr.’s assertion that COVID was genetically engineered to spare Jewish and Chinese people is deeply offensive and incredibly dangerous. Every aspect of his comments reflects some of the most abhorrent antisemitic conspiracy theories throughout history and contributes to today’s dangerous rise of antisemitism."
And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Kennedy's comments last week had been "vile" and compared them to an "attack on our fellow citizens, our fellow Americans."
Separately, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy indicated Monday that he has no problem with Kennedy testifying before a House subcommittee later this week about "censorship."
“I disagree with everything he said,” McCarthy said. “The hearing that we have this week is about censorship. I don't think censoring somebody is actually the answer here.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that people who identify as Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders had disproportionately higher rates of deaths from COVID-19 after accounting for age.
Researchers suggest this may be attributed to disparities that existed before the pandemic and continue to exist. For example, some minority groups experience limited access to health care, according to the Lancet medical journal.
“There is a wide ocean between genetic markers and real-world evidence of impact," said John Brownstein, an ABC News contributor and chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital. "Clearly there are so many risk factors (age, underlying health conditions, health care access) that influence how the virus impacted different demographic groups."
In an interview with ABC News, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of the World Values Network and a friend of Kennedy's, said that the two spoke candidly on Saturday about Kennedy's recent conspiracy theory remarks.
"I said, 'Well, you know what, Bobby? I think the opposite is true. I witnessed the decimation of Ashkenazi Jews in the New York Hasidic community in Crown Heights. They lost 80 Senior rabbis in the first month [to COVID-19], March of 2020, all Ashkenazi Jews,'" Boteach said.
He said that while the two disagree "vociferously" on a number of topics, they still speak nearly every day. Boteach added that he believes Kennedy is an ally to Jews, not an antisemite, but he condemned Kennedy's comments.
In a statement sent by his campaign, challenging the Post's headline on its story, Kennedy maintained that he has “never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was engineered to ‘spare Jews.’”
"I was appalled by the misinterpretation of my statement," he told ABC News on Sunday.
On Twitter, he wrote that "I do not believe and never implied" COVID-19's impact on people of different ethnicities "was deliberately engineered."
Kennedy tweeted that last Tuesday's event was off the record; the Post reported that it was not. ABC News could not immediately reach event organizers to confirm the nature of the event.
Kennedy has previously faced backlash for his COVID-19 comments.
During a rally in 2020, Kennedy compared pandemic-era restrictions to Nazi Germany: "Even in Hitler's Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did."
He later apologized for the remark, saying, "My intention was to use examples of past barbarism to show the perils from new technologies of control. To the extent my remarks caused hurt, I am truly and deeply sorry."
Despite Kennedy launching a long shot bid for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination over incumbent Joe Biden, his candidacy has attracted a notable amount of support from some Republicans and far-right figures.
According to FEC records reviewed by ABC News, of 104 donors who gave more than $6,000 to Kennedy -- near the maximum federal individual contribution -- more than 40% had histories of donating to Republicans and 64% had never donated to a Democrat before, while 29% had exclusively donated to Republicans in the past.
Collectively, these donors have also contributed millions of dollars to GOP candidates and causes.
ABC News' Youri Benadjaoud, Adam Carlson, Ben Gittleson and Lauren Peller contributed to this report.