Tech Tycoon Dangled a COVID Cure—Then Went Full Anti-Vaxxer
Steve Kirsch invented the optical mouse. Now he’s pioneering something a whole lot more dangerous.
As recently as this spring, Steve Kirsch and his COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF) were riding high.
Millions in claimed donations from Silicon Valley’s elite. Promising treatment research. Management from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. A scientific advisory board staffed with medical all-stars. And plenty of attention from research universities and the press alike.
But recent weeks have found the group increasingly alienated and friendless—and its founder provoking a furor with wild and bogus claims at a public Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hearing that COVID-19 vaccines “kill more people than they save.” The agency quickly slapped down the comments from Kirsch, a tech mogul with a fortune once estimated at $230 million, even as the claims triggered a flurry of false social-media posts attributing Kirsch’s assertions to the FDA itself.
It’s part of a pattern of recent behavior that has cost Kirsch much of his institutional support and, he claims, his role at two of his latest tech start-ups. His descent reveals how the plague of COVID-19 lies and misconceptions can infect even those with impressive educations and enormous resources.
“Mr. Kirsch is posing as a scientist with expertise in drug and vaccine development. His statements over the past year belie this pose,” Dr. Douglas Richman, distinguished professor of pathology and medicine at the University of California San Diego and a former member of the CETF’s advisory board, told The Daily Beast. “His dissemination of misinformation is a threat to public health.”
As Richman tells it, the CETF was in a sense a victim of its own early success—and of its founder’s self-regard. The latter was evident in Kirsch’s correspondence with The Daily Beast.
“THE ENTIRE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY BOARD CAN’T FIND A SINGLE ERROR IN MY ANALYSIS. THEY ARE AFRAID TO DEBATE ME ON A LIVE RECORDED ZOOM CALL BECAUSE IT WOULD REVEAL HOW COMPLETELY OUT OF TOUCH THEY ARE WITH VACCINE SAFETY ISSUES,” Kirsch wrote in an email to The Daily Beast (all caps his). “NONE WILL CHALLENGE us because we have the facts and science on our side. Go find me ANYONE WHO WILL DO A RECORDED DEBATE IF YOU WANT TO SEE WHO IS TELLING THE TRUTH.”
But Richman and multiple other scientists—including vaccine experts—whom The Daily Beast consulted for this article quickly struck upon the key problem in Kirsch’s claims. As with many anti-vaxxers, Kirsch and the CETF’s allegations about safe and effective vaccines’ supposed dangers rely on raw data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), as well as upon a single study published last month in a small toxicology journal—a study that itself drew upon VAERS data.
The problem with relying on that data, experts have long stressed, is that the system depends on self-reporting, making it susceptible to mistaken or even fraudulent attributions of health problems and fatalities. The information it collects is useful mainly for credentialed researchers to identify potential patterns and verify them through more rigorous databases—such as the Centers for Disease Control’s VSAFE—and through clinical testing.
“It is meant to be a catchall, and not to delineate actual causal relationships,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Is it something that you see in other trials where there’s more rigor involved? That’s how you properly use VAERS.”
The misinformation Kirsch spewed in his three-and-a-half minute slot at last week’s hearing—sandwiched between other conspiracy theorists—represents an incredible departure from the promise that attended the CETF’s founding in April 2020.
Early media reports captured the inspirational elements of Kirsch’s personal story: a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the inventor of the optical mouse, the self-described “serial entrepreneur” was also a diabetic, a rare cancer survivor, and an avid philanthropist.
An “immunocompromised man” as well as a “man of means,” as Forbes put it last July.
Kirsch reported seeding the CETF with $1 million of his own money and headed it himself, with a goal of discovering whether existing drugs could treat the novel coronavirus. The group soon boasted of a similarly large gift from the personal foundation of eBay veteran Jeff Skoll, plus six-figure sums from the likes of Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and Elon Musk. None of the three billionaires responded to requests for comment and The Daily Beast could only independently confirm that the Skoll Foundation donated.
Soon, the scientific advisory board was reviewing grant applications, while the Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors handled the money.
“He was intelligent and he had money and he had a mission that seemed worth contributing to,” recalled Richman. “The understanding was that we would act as a study section and review proposals very quickly to turn around to get them to treatment very quickly. There were a bunch of good proposals and we awarded funds and we rejected a bunch that were not as good.”
Richman said that the CETF’s work never dealt with vaccines, which prevent people from contracting a disease. Rather, it was focused on treatments for people who had already become ill.
Kirsch and his group received a fresh wave of attention off hopeful trials of the antidepressant fluvoxamine, which ultimately won him a spot on 60 Minutes in March.
But the potential upsides of fluvoxamine—which the National Institutes of Health still regard as insufficient—proved the downfall of the CETF, Richman said. Kirsch became increasingly vocal in promoting the drug as a solution to the pandemic, while the increasingly restive board knew it required more testing, according to Richman. He suggested attendant discontent culminated in a wave of abdications in May.
“He began to feel that his expertise extended in those areas as well,” Richman said. “He continued and we basically, within a week or so, the whole bunch of us elected to resign, because we didn’t want to be associated with making recommendations that were premature.”
In the months that followed, Richman reported watching in horror as Kirsch appeared on fringe YouTube shows pushing anti-vaccine propaganda.
“It’s just misinformation. It just strikes me as similar to ‘the election was stolen’ or something,” said Richman. “It’s all non-science, non-facts, and this is not his area."
During a phone conversation with The Daily Beast in which he repeatedly broke into shouting, Kirsch disputed Richman’s account. The board’s resignation, he asserted, coincided not with his trumpeting fluvoxamine but with his decision to publicly attack the safety of the vaccines.
This course of action, he said, also led to Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors terminating its relationship with CETF.
"As soon as I became anti-vax, they dropped us like a rock,” he said.
The Rockefeller group, founded to handle the family’s charitable work, did not respond directly to Kirsch’s claim.
“In response to your query about the COVID Early Treatment Fund, it has concluded its work with RPA. CETF had an admirable goal of finding and financially supporting research for early treatment of COVID-19, and successfully funded significant research on repurposed drugs by leading researchers,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.
Kirsch also said his anti-vaccine activism brought him under pressure from the boards of directors at the two most recent companies he started, the financial platforms M10 and Token. He said the first characterized his stance as “a liability to the company” following a customer complaint, and that the second outright asked him to leave.
In statements to The Daily Beast, both firms maintained Kirsch made his decision to depart “independently,” although M10 confirmed that a customer had objected to his extracurricular activities.
Kirsch added that the CETF has not raised any new funds in months, though he also asserted the group was no longer soliciting donations because he believes the federal government will ignore its work.
The irony is that Kirsch, along with his wife and three children, has himself gotten vaccinated—although he insisted they got their shots back in March, before he began to proselytize against them. He admitted he could attribute no ill effect to his inoculation, though he suspiciously pointed to a persistent cough and an increase in his required insulin dosage.
“Those symptoms happened since I got vaccinated,” he said, even as he acknowledged the correlation didn’t amount to proof. “It could have been caused by other things.”
This, of course, is the problem experts point to in Kirsch’s and other anti-vaxxers’ VAERS-dependent methodology.
“If you get vaccinated, and you have a heart attack two weeks later, or get into a car accident, that gets reported as having something to do with the vaccine, when it doesn’t,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and a Daily Beast contributor.
Hotez went on to highlight high vaccination rates among the elderly and other vulnerable populations, many of whom die of natural causes or of health problems unrelated to the vaccine. “What this guy’s doing is trying to make the claim that their deaths aren’t deaths from other causes, they’re deaths from COVID-19 vaccinations.”
For now, the CETF is collecting names for its “vaccine injury” fund, which Kirsch believes he will be able to raise money for when his claims are finally taken seriously—though he admitted that may never happen. In the meantime, he said he felt encouraged by the enthusiastic response his work has received on Gab, a social media network popular among conspiracy theorists and white supremacists.
“There are a few who disagree, but most all of my 19K followers think what I’m doing is awesome,” he wrote in an email.