One would think that a global pandemic resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans would present a fair number of challenges for anti-vaccine activists. But in the wake of the spread of the novel coronavirus, the community is—to borrow an overused phrase—having a moment.
They’re pushing their dangerous views at anti-lockdown protests across the country, raising fears about the risks of any future COVID-19 vaccine. Plandemic, the coronavirus conspiracy-theory video starring a discredited doctor allied with anti-vaccine activists, racked up millions of views on social media before it was banned from YouTube and Facebook. In Australia, a crowd called for billionaire Bill Gates to be arrested—all for the “crime” of funding vaccine research.
And yet, with increased visibility comes heightened pressure. And as the anti-vaccine movement tries to take advantage of the pandemic, it’s been torn in half by a new feud and multiple lawsuits over the most damaging claim someone can make about an anti-vaccine activist: that they secretly support vaccines.
On one side of the fight is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., perhaps the country’s most prominent anti-vaccine activist, whose own family members have disowned his anti-vaccine views. On the other is Shiva Ayyadurai, the self-styled “inventor of email” who’s running in the Republican primary for a Massachusetts Senate seat.
Last week, their simmering fight over leadership of the anti-vaccine movement spilled into court, with Ayyadurai suing Kennedy for $95 million for defamation.
Ayyadurai has been publicly feuding with Kennedy since at least January, when he claimed on Twitter that Kennedy was afraid to take a picture with him at an anti-vaccine event and tying Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, who has been dubbed in the community as the “vaccine queen.”
The clash between the two has only accelerated in the coronavirus era, as Ayyadurai, who holds a Ph.D. in biological engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has long associated himself with fringe right-wing activists, styled himself as a coronavirus expert.
Ayyadurai’s claims about “coronavirus fear-mongering” were cited by Fox News host Sean Hannity, while QAnon conspiracy theorists pushed for Ayyadurai to replace Dr. Anthony Fauci as the face of the country’s coronavirus response.
At the same time, Ayyadurai has clashed with other prominent anti-vaccine activists, even as he himself argued that the coronavirus could be dealt with through vitamins. Ayyadurai dubbed Kennedy a member of the “Kennedy Klinton Klan,” portraying him as a secret ally of Gates and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
Ayyadurai appears to have picked Kennedy as a foil because he’s preparing to face Kennedy’s nephew, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) in the Senate general election. The younger Kennedy is currently polling ahead of incumbent Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in the Democratic primary.
This isn’t Ayyadurai’s first Senate run. In 2018, he badly lost an independent Senate bid for the seat held by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in which he urged voters to back “the REAL Indian.” Ayyadurai faces only one GOP primary opponent, attorney Kevin O’Connor.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. shot back against Ayyadurai on April 28, suggesting in a blog post that Ayyadurai is “controlled opposition” working on behalf of unnamed forces intent on dividing and undermining anti-vaccine activists with “venomous salvos.”
“When Shiva calls Movement leaders ‘controlled opposition,’ is he speaking of himself?” Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy’s blog post included a host of accusations against Ayyadurai, many of them meant to tie Ayyadurai himself to the Clinton family or Gates, whose funding of vaccine research has turned him into a top enemy for anti-vaccine activists. Most damning of all, Kennedy claimed that CytoSolve, a company that Ayyadurai runs, is involved in vaccine production—with the supposedly damning implication that Ayyadurai is secretly a supporter of vaccines.
“Shiva never mentions the fact that he is a vaccine maker,” Kennedy wrote.
Few charges are more serious in the anti-vax community. Ayyadurai quickly denied that CytoSolve makes vaccines. And on May 8, he took the fight to federal court with a lawsuit claiming that Kennedy defamed him with the allegation, insisting that the allegation that he makes vaccines and other claims mentioned in Kennedy’s blog post had caused him a whopping $95 million in damages. It’s not clear how Ayyadurai arrived at the figure of $95 million, which he claims he’ll use to fund centers devoted to the “importance of boosting the immune system.” Ayyadurai filed a separate lawsuit against a Kennedy supporter over a related blog post.
In his complaint, Ayyadurai alleged that Kennedy’s claim that Ayyadurai makes vaccines was “intended to discredit him.”
“Dr. Ayyadurai is not a vaccine maker,” the lawsuit reads. “He has never made a vaccine, nor, as explained further below, have any of his companies made a single vaccine.”
Ayyadurai didn’t respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, which is now being considered in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts. So far, no hearing date has been set in the case. Kennedy couldn’t be reached for comment.