Subscribe to the OSS Weekly Newsletter!

Register for the OSS 25th Anniversary Event

Steve Kirsch and the Seduction of Simplicity

An entrepreneur decided to invest money into researching off-patent drugs against COVID-19. Why did that lead him to the anti-vaxx movement?

A central lesson we scientists learn in university is that science is complicated. Experiments that should yield either result A or B show us C, instead. Individual studies are flawed, and our understanding of a problem is achieved by collating these puzzle pieces to the best of our ability and interpreting the emerging picture in a way that, we hope, minimizes our biases. It is tricky work, but you know what is easier?

Oversimplifying.

Steve Kirsch is a serial entrepreneur who, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, had a good idea. But as the public health crisis dragged on, Kirsch, whose credentials are in electrical engineering and computer science, started to become a misinformation superspreader, as MIT Tech Review reported. He publicly distorted and exaggerated tiny signals in the scientific literature and conjured up an epic story of good versus evil: Pfizer’s COVID vaccine was killing more people than it saved, he said, while the usefulness of safe and cheap drugs was being denied by an apparatus that favoured newer, more profitable treatments. Kirsch, like so many COVID misinformers, would grab hold of the free speech torch and try to convince his followers that the only way to settle the issue would be to debate it publicly.

When we look at Kirsch’s central claims, we do not find a smoking gun. Rather, we see a shadow that requires an awful lot of squinting to look like a gun.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice

Demonizing vaccines is very fashionable these days in contrarian circles. All they need do is zero in on a bit of fragmentary data and blow it out of proportion.

On The Dr. Drew Show, Kirsch said that “shingles is something that the FDA knows is caused by the [COVID-19] vaccine, sort of the retriggering of shingles,” before boldly claiming that “shingles numbers are off the charts for this particular vaccine.”

“Off the charts?”

Shingles is caused by the awakening of a dormant virus, varicella-zoster, in the human body. This virus causes chickenpox when we’re young. It can lay low for decades and then wake up to cause painful inflammation. Given that nearly 582 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been given in the United States alone (where Kirsch’s conversation with Dr. Drew was taking place), an “off the charts” number of people who suddenly develop shingles after receiving the vaccine would surely be in the six digits at least, right?

A systematic review of published cases of shingles following (though not necessarily caused by) COVID vaccination identified 54 cases. Another found 91. Both concluded that, while it was possible the vaccine had somehow awakened the varicella-zoster virus in these people, this cause-and-effect link could not be established. As it turns out, a lot of bad things can happen after receiving a vaccine for no other reason than bad things happen regularly. If we cherry-pick these reports to scare people, we should also share post-vaccination reports claiming nose bleeds, anal leakages, and the unbelievable swelling of the male reproductive apparatus.

Given that older adults were prioritized for vaccination, that they represent the population most likely to develop shingles in the first place, and that a staggering one in three people in the US will develop shingles in their lifetime, this smattering of cases is hardly a major danger signal.

But it was on The Dark Horse Podcast, a show that has devolved into soft-spoken conspiracy mongering, that Kirsch, in conversation with Dr. Robert Malone, put his finger on why he thought the COVID-19 vaccines were so harmful. The spike protein itself, encoded by the vaccine, was biologically active, he claimed, and dangerous. How did he know this?

Kirsch, who had received Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, talked to the carpet cleaner who came to his house. The cleaner told him he had received Pfizer’s vaccine and had had a heart attack two minutes later. Meanwhile, his wife’s hand started shaking after receiving the vaccine. Kirsch’s logic? “To have not just one person, but him and his wife? I mean, that is like lightning striking twice in the same place.” He spoke to Dr. Byram Bridle, a Canadian viral immunologist known for making unsupported claims during the pandemic, who convinced him that the spike protein encoded by the vaccine did not stay at the site of injection; it was found all over the body and was toxic to us.

This claim is not true, but it feels like it might be. Luckily, “vaccine Spike” is not the same as and behaves differently from “virus Spike.” First off, it has been tweaked: scientists added an extra bit of code to it so that it would contain two additional proline molecules, which freeze the spike protein in the shape it has before unlocking the door to our cells, so that our immune system would get trained to recognize the spike protein in its pre-breaking-and-entering look. Second, while the spike protein gets assembled into new viral particles during an actual infection, no viral particles are generated from being vaccinated. Our bodies do not make the coronavirus; they simply make the spike protein, and that protein becomes stuck inside the membrane of the cell that makes it.

The evidence for Spike leaving the site of injection (i.e. the shoulder muscle) comes from a study of 13 Moderna-vaccinated people that reported extremely low levels of it in the blood of 11 of them using ultralow detection technology. But these very small amounts make their way to the liver, where they get chewed up.

Steve Kirsch, however, believes these vaccines are incredibly harmful and has been saying as much publicly, which led to all 12 members of the scientific advisory board of his COVID-19 company to resign. Kirsch himself would end up stepping down as CEO and giving up his board seat.

If the vaccines are toxic, what is Kirsch’s solution to the pandemic? The very thing his company was created to do: repurposing old drugs to find safe and effective COVID treatments.

Works 100% of the time

There is an argument to be made that “the system” is incentivized against studying off-patent drugs for newer applications. Obviously, a new drug’s patent can be very profitable when the drug is brought to market, and it can pay for that drug’s research and development (as well as the R&D behind a number of other drugs that didn’t pan out). An off-patent drug that anyone can manufacture? Not so much.

But I remember from my grad school days a neighbouring academic lab that was studying metformin, a common drug for diabetes approved in Canada in 1972, to see if it had other applications. Similar off-patent drugs are explored in this way by other labs, but this important research requires investments.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steve Kirsch created the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF) to finance trials of off-patent drugs in an attempt to find a potent treatment that had been staring us in the face. But while this effort was praiseworthy, Kirsch’s predilection for oversimplifying and exaggerating led him to mislead.

The CETF website boldly claims that ivermectin and fluvoxamine have been known since October 2020 to be “two of the most effective drugs that can be used against COVID,” but that the NIH and WHO ignore this evidence.

I have written before about the ivermectin delusion. Fraudulent and mediocre studies swayed the minds of people inclined to believe in large pharmaceutical conspiracy theories. Even dissecting the latest ivermectin study to find a positive signal, there is no good evidence that the anti-parasitic drug can help with COVID-19. Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist and science communicator, is a bit more charitable in his assessment: there is no evidence it impacts COVID-19 mortality, but it could still provide modest benefit… or modest harm. “What we can say with increasing confidence,” he writes, “is that it appears less and less likely that we will end up finding a benefit for the drug.”

The fluvoxamine story is a bit more optimistic.

Commonly used to treat depression, it has been proposed that fluvoxamine might also quell the out-of-control inflammatory reaction seen in severe COVID cases. Faced with a handful of studies of fluvoxamine against COVID-19, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this week declined a request for its emergency use authorization. Their justification is certainly worth debating. What should not be up for debate is that calling fluvoxamine “the fast, easy, safe, simple, low-cost solution to COVID that works 100% of the time that nobody wants to talk about” after early trial results had come out is irresponsible and unwarranted. Which is what Steve Kirsch did back in December 2020.

Doug Richman, an HIV drug researcher and former member of Kirsch’s scientific advisory board, put it thusly to MIT Technology Review: “He considers himself an expert in something that he doesn’t have training or experience in, and he’s not following scientific methods to assess data.” If you believe cheap drugs to be a panacea and vaccines to be deadly, how else to explain public health agencies’ disagreement with you but as severe incompetence… or conspiratorial secrecy?

Debate me, bro!

The brashness that may have served Kirsch well in the business world, where a word like “game-changer” attracts investments, clashes with the subtleties of scientific research. In applying the language and posturing he knew as an entrepreneur to the culture of COVID research, Kirsch ended up radicalizing himself into becoming a COVID-19 anti-vaxxer.

He founded the anti-vaccine group Vaccine Safety Research Foundation, whose advisors include Byram Bridle, Peter McCullough, Robert Malone, and Stephanie Seneff. He is friends with Joe Mercola, one of the richest and most influential figures in the modern anti-vaccination movement (I wrote about him here). He has asked his readers on Substack to fill out a very unscientific survey (“could be the most important survey you’ll ever take”) to see if they know anyone who died after receiving a COVID vaccine. And his answer to his opponents is straight out of the quack handbook: debate me, bro!

Kirsch has publicly challenged teenagers to explain to him why the COVID vaccines are safe, promising $25,000 for a persuasive argument. To former President Obama, it’s $1 million to join him in a debate, for which Kirsch pre-emptively accuses Obama and his friends of being misinformation spreaders. Debating pseudoscience-peddling, bad-faith actors is a recipe for disaster. They firehose the stage with references to obscure papers and irrelevant data points, and their fringe views are elevated to the level of ideas worthy of public debates.

And they don’t have to play by the rules. Kirsch once asked Jeffrey Morris, the director of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, to estimate how many deaths the COVID vaccines had caused. Kirsch twisted Morris’ answer of “Who knows, but not 150K, and not zero,” into the headline, “BOMBSHELL: Top biostats professor admits we have NO CLUE # of people KILLED by COVID vaccines,” in an email he sent to journalists. I am reminded of the old saying warning people against playing chess with pigeons. They’ll defecate all over the board and fly away, satisfied of their victory.

Media coverage of Kirsch’s descent into anti-vaccine rhetoric portrays an iconoclastic man who shouts at reporters and sends them emails in all caps. It’s a real shame. His idea to shine a light on cheap drugs with well-documented safety profiles is a good one, but his poisoning of the vaccine well to do so is deranged. He has become the very thing he denounced in George W. Bush. In a 2008 blog post, Kirsch reminisced about urging people not to vote for Bush in 2000: “He would be a disaster as President,” Kirsch wrote, “since he had a track record of ignoring facts, ignoring science, and twisting the facts to support his misguided beliefs.”

Sounds familiar?

Take-home message:
- Steve Kirsch is an entrepreneur who created a company to fund research into off-patent drugs to see if they were effective against COVID-19.
- He regularly exaggerates scientific findings and twists them to support his narrative that the COVID-19 vaccines are deadly and that off-patent drugs like ivermectin and fluvoxamine are highly effective against COVID-19


@CrackedScience

Back to top