Robert Malone claims to have invented mRNA technology. Why is he trying so hard to undermine its use?By Tom Bartlett Originally published in The Atlantic ~ August 12, 2021
Robert Malone—a medical doctor and an infectious-disease researcher—recently suggested that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines might actually make COVID-19 infections worse. He chuckled as he imagined Anthony Fauci announcing that the vaccination campaign was all a big mistake (“Oh darn, I was wrong!”) and would need to be abandoned. When he floated that nightmare scenario during a recent podcast interview with Steve Bannon, both men seemed almost delighted at the prospect of public-health officials and pharmaceutical companies getting their comeuppance. “This is a catastrophe,” Bannon declared, beaming at his guest. “You’re hearing it from an individual who invented the mRNA [vaccine] and has dedicated his life to vaccines. He’s the opposite of an anti-vaxxer.”
Before going any further, let’s be clear that the back-and-forth between Bannon and Malone was premised on misinformation. The vaccines have repeatedly been shown to help prevent symptomatic coronavirus infections and reduce their severity. Malone was riffing on a botched sentence in a USA Today article, one that was later deleted but not before being screenshotted and widely shared. That kind of overheated, spottily sourced conversation is par for the course on shows like Bannon’s, which traffic in a set of claims that sound depressingly familiar: The vaccines cause more harm than experts are letting on; Fauci is a liar and possibly a fascist; and the mainstream news media is either shamelessly complicit or too stupid to figure out what’s really going on.
In that alternate media universe, Robert Malone’s star is ascendant. He started popping up on podcasts and cable news shows a few months ago, presented as a scientific expert, arguing that the approval process for the vaccines had been unwisely rushed. He told Tucker Carlson that the public doesn’t have enough information to decide whether to get vaccinated. He told Glenn Beck that offering incentives for taking vaccines is unethical. He told Del Bigtree, an anti-vaccine activist who opposes common childhood inoculations, that there hadn’t been sufficient research on how the vaccines might affect women’s reproductive systems. On show after show, Malone, who has quickly amassed more than 200,000 Twitter followers, casts doubt on the safety of the vaccines while decrying what he sees as attempts to censor dissent.
Wherever he appears, Malone is billed as the inventor of mRNA vaccines. It’s in his Twitter bio. “I literally invented mRNA technology when I was 28,” says Malone, who is now 61. If that’s true—or, more to the point, if Malone believes it to be true—then you might expect him to be championing a very different message in his media appearances. According to one recent study, the innovation for which he claims to be responsible has already saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the United States alone; there’s talk that it may soon lead to a round of Nobel Prizes. It’s the kind of validation that few scientists in history have ever received. Yet instead of taking a victory lap, Malone has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of his own alleged accomplishment. He’s sowed doubt about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on pretty much any podcast or YouTube channel that will have him.
Why is the self-described inventor of the mRNA vaccines working so hard to undermine them?
Whether Malone really came up with mRNA vaccines is a question probably best left to Swedish prize committees, but you could make a case for his involvement. When I called Malone at his 50-acre horse farm in Virginia, he directed me to a 6,000-word essay written by his wife, Jill, that lays out why he believes himself to be the primary discoverer. “This is a story about academic and commercial avarice,” it begins. The document’s tone is pointed, and at times lapses into all-caps fury. She frames her husband as a genius scientist who is “largely unknown by the scientific establishment because of abuses by individuals to secure their own place in the history books.”
The abridged version is that when Malone was a graduate student in biology in the late 1980s at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, he injected genetic material—DNA and RNA—into the cells of mice in hopes of creating a new kind of vaccine. He was the first author on a 1989 paper demonstrating how RNA could be delivered into cells using lipids, which are basically tiny globules of fat, and a co-author on a 1990 Science paper showing that if you inject pure RNA or DNA into mouse muscle cells, it can lead to the transcription of new proteins. If the same approach worked for human cells, the latter paper said in its conclusion, this technology “may provide alternative approaches to vaccine development.”
These two studies do indeed represent seminal work in the field of gene transfer, according to Rein Verbeke, a postdoctoral fellow at Ghent University, in Belgium, and the lead author of a 2019 history of mRNA-vaccine development. (Indeed, Malone’s studies are the first two references in Verbeke’s paper, out of 224 in total.) Verbeke told me he believes that Malone and his co-authors “sparked for the first time the hope that mRNA could have potential as a new drug class,” though he also notes that “the achievement of the mRNA vaccines of today is the accomplishment of a lot of collaborative efforts.”