Dr. Robert Malone says he helped invent mRNA vaccines and has been wronged for decades. Now he’s spreading unfounded claims about the vaccines and the virus.
By Davey Alba
MADISON, Va. — “I haven’t been able to ride a horse in months,” Dr. Robert Malone said from his 50-acre horse farm about two hours southwest of Washington. “It’s just a constant barrage of requests for assistance.”
Dr. Malone, 62, was sitting barefoot at his kitchen table, wearing a navy tie decorated with dark red spikes of the coronavirus, in the middle of another busy day of appearances on conservative television shows and podcasts. Just that week, he had appeared on “Hannity,” a hit on Fox News that averages over three million viewers, and on One America News. He joined “Candace,” an online talk show hosted by the right-wing media personality Candace Owens. And he was a guest on the podcasts “America First With Sebastian Gorka” and “The Joe Pags Show.”
Dr. Malone spent decades working in academic centers and with start-ups seeking to bring new medical treatments to market and to combat the Zika and Ebola outbreaks. But in recent months, as the coronavirus pandemic has persisted, he has taken up an entirely different role: spreading misinformation about the virus and vaccines on conservative programs.
In many of his appearances, Dr. Malone questions the severity of the coronavirus, which has now killed nearly one million people in the United States, and the safety of the coronavirus vaccines, which have been widely found to be safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death. His statements in late December on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” one of the most popular podcasts in the country, with 11 million listeners per episode on average, were at the center of the uproar over Mr. Rogan’s role in spreading bad information about the virus.
Dr. Malone also routinely sells himself on the shows as the inventor of mRNA vaccines, the technology used by Pfizer and Moderna for their Covid-19 shots, and says he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for their development. While he was involved in some early research into the technology, his role in its creation was minimal at best, say half a dozen Covid experts and researchers, including three who worked closely with Dr. Malone.
In spreading these exaggerations and unfounded claims, Dr. Malone joins medical professionals and scientists, like Dr. Joseph Mercola and Dr. Judy Mikovits, whose profiles have grown during the pandemic as they spread misinformation about mask-wearing and convoluted conspiracy theories about virus experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
But unlike many of them, Dr. Malone is quite new to the right-wing media world, first appearing regularly on podcasts last June. Even two years into the pandemic, new misinformation stars are being minted. And in today’s media echo chamber — powered by social media algorithms and a tightknit network of politicians and influencers promoting debunked claims — they can quickly catapult to stardom.
In addition to his regular appearances on conservative shows, Dr. Malone has more than 134,000 subscribers to his Substack newsletter. About 8,000 pay the $5 monthly cost, he said, which would amount to at least $31,200 in monthly revenue. And mentions of him on social media, on cable television and in print and online news outlets have soared — to more than 300,000 so far this year, according to Zignal, a media research firm.
The coronavirus pandemic has “given rise to a class of influencers who build conspiracy theories and recruit as many people into them as possible,” said Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow for the Atlantic Council who studies digital platforms. “These influencers usually have a special claim to expertise and a veneer of credibility.”
“And almost without exception, these influencers feel that they have been wronged by mainstream society in some way,” Mr. Brooking added.
Dr. Malone earned a medical degree from Northwestern University in 1991, and for the next decade taught pathology at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Maryland. He then turned to biotech start-ups and consulting. His résumé says he was “instrumental” in securing early-stage approval for research on the Ebola vaccine by the pharmaceutical company Merck in the mid-2010s. He also worked on repurposing drugs to treat Zika.
In extended interviews at his home over two days, Dr. Malone said he was repeatedly not recognized for his contributions over the course of his career, his voice low and grave as he recounted perceived slights by the institutions he had worked for. His wife, Dr. Jill Glasspool Malone, paced the room and pulled up articles on her laptop that she said supported his complaints.
The example he points to more frequently is from his time at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. While there, he performed experiments that showed how human cells could absorb an mRNA cocktail and produce proteins from it. Those experiments, he says, make him the inventor of mRNA vaccine technology.
“I was there,” Dr. Malone said. “I wrote all the invention.”
What the mainstream media did instead, he said, was give credit for the mRNA vaccines to the scientists Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, because there “is a concerted campaign to get them the Nobel Prize” by Pfizer and BioNTech, where Dr. Kariko is a senior vice president, as well as the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Weissman leads a laboratory researching vaccines and infectious diseases.
But at the time he was conducting those experiments, it was not known how to protect the fragile RNA from the immune system’s attack, scientists say. Former colleagues said they had watched in astonishment as Dr. Malone began posting on social media about why he deserved to win the Nobel Prize.
The idea that he is the inventor of mRNA vaccines is “a totally false claim,” said Dr. Gyula Acsadi, a pediatrician in Connecticut who along with Dr. Malone and five others wrote a widely cited paper in 1990 showing that injecting RNA into muscle could produce proteins. (The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work by injecting RNA into arm muscles that produce copies of the “spike protein” found on the outside of the coronavirus. The human immune system identifies that protein, attacks it and then remembers how to defeat it.)
But Dr. Malone was not the lead author on the paper and, according to Dr. Acsadi, did not make a significant contribution to the research. While the paper stated that the technology could “provide alternative approaches to vaccine development,” Dr. Acsadi said none of the other authors would claim that they invented the vaccine.
“Some of his work was important,” said Dr. Alastair McAlpine, a pediatric infectious disease doctor based in Vancouver, British Columbia, “but that’s a long way away from claiming to have invented the technology that underpins the vaccines as we use them today.”
The vaccines “are the result of hundreds of scientists all over the world, all combining to come together to form this vaccine,” Dr. McAlpine said. “It was not one individual or the pioneering work of an individual person.”
A spokeswoman for Penn Medicine said, “We have been excited to witness the deployment of the vaccines in the global fight against the virus and the well-deserved global recognition for Drs. Kariko and Weissman’s decades of visionary basic science research.”
Dr. Malone pushes back against the criticism directed at him by scientists, researchers and journalists, and dismisses the dozens of fact-checks disputing his statements as “attacks.”
He also continues to repeat his claims, with the help of his wife, Dr. Glasspool Malone, who is trained in biotechnology and public policy. She writes, he said, more than half of the articles posted onto his Substack newsletter — which is awash in conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccines. Recent articles include “The illusion of evidence-based medicine” and “How does it feel to be vindicated?”
Dr. Malone said he did not align himself with any particular political party. But in recent months, he and his wife have made numerous stops at popular conservative conferences, like Hereticon, the Peter Thiel-backed conference in Miami for Silicon Valley’s self-proclaimed contrarians, and the “Defeat the Mandates” march in Washington.
Dr. Malone says much of the pushback he receives is because anything that questions the guidance from organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is automatically labeled misinformation by the medical establishment, as well as the technology platforms.
Many well-meaning public figures and donors committed themselves to the wrong ideas, just to be able to tell themselves that they are indeed playing a role helping to solve the crisis, he said.
“It is really easy to get caught up in it, and obsess, and lose perspective — and kind of lose yourself,” Dr. Malone said of them.
Many scientists and researchers say there is good-faith disagreement about how to translate fast-moving science into policy, and acknowledge that health agencies have adjusted guidelines over time, as new information is collected.
Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, said such guidance was “only as reliable as the evidence behind it, and thus it should change when new evidence is obtained.”
But they say Dr. Malone has twisted legitimate policy debates to use them as cover for continuing to spread misinformation and to advance claims about the pandemic that are demonstrably incorrect.
Months ago, he was promoting the drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin for treatment of Covid-19, despite several studies and scientific trials showing a lack of evidence that the drugs improved the conditions of Covid patients. Dr. Malone said that early on in the pandemic, he believed that what he could contribute was bringing repurposed drugs to market.
“All the big boys came in for the vaccines,” Dr. Malone said. “We weren’t needed for that.”
The Food and Drug Administration continues to caution against the use of hydroxychloroquine “due to risk of heart rhythm problems,” and a large study published in March found that ivermectin does not reduce the risk of Covid hospitalization. The F.D.A. has also said taking large doses of the drug is dangerous.
“Robert Malone is exploiting the fact that data-driven course correction is inherent to the scientific process to peddle disinformation,” Dr. Rasmussen said. “It’s extraordinarily dishonest and morally bankrupt.”