human guinea pigs

Peter Thiel funds a herpes vaccine trial that sidesteps patient protections

When he’s not busy shutting down media outlets he holds a grudge against or letting the President of the United States fondle his hand, PayPal tycoon Peter Thiel has another hobby: circumventing patient safety protections.

Thiel is one of several businessmen bankrolling a company looking to develop a herpes vaccine. (Yes, the STD herpes.) Thiel has sunk $7 million into the effort, which would seem an admirable initiative. Except for the fact that it’s intentionally ignoring the rules that the U.S. has in place to make sure patients in clinical trials are kept safe.

To test a new drug or vaccine, companies go through a rigorous process to ensure that human subjects aren’t subjected to harm. The process includes monitoring of the trials by an institutional review board (IRB) and by the FDA,  which weigh the risks and benefits to participants and safeguards their welfare.

Related: Those crickets you hear? That’s Peter Thiel standing up to Trump’s attacks on equality

However, Rationale Vaccines, the company Thiel has invested in, decided to skip the IRB and FDA review. The first phase of the clinical trial is being held on the Caribbean island of St. Kitt, where participants have flown several times to get the test vaccine.

“What they’re doing is patently unethical,” Jonathan Zenilman, chief of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center’s Infectious Diseases Division, told Stat. “There’s a reason why researchers rely on these protections. People can die.”

The clinical trial is as much a test of politics as science. Liberterians like Thiel object to the regulations that the FDA (and government in general) have in place on the grounds that they are preventing products from getting to the market. Thiel famously bankrolled Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, which included a pledge to eliminate the FDA altogether and let the market sort out the difference between good and bad drugs.

The FDA may not look too kindly on the vaccine, should it ever advance to the point where Rationale Vaccines is seeking approval in the U.S. (Most test drugs and vaccines fail in clinical trials and never get that far.) After all, either you follow the agency’s way of doing things or you face the consequences.

But the vaccine trial does offer Thiel and his fellow investors a chance to push the envelop away from those pesky guidelines. So what if that means letting companies decided what’s safe when it comes to it human experimentation.

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  • Brody

    Anyone else recall how many guys back in the 80s would’ve done almost anything to be part of medical experimentation? Remember how the FDA “rules” allowed so many men to die?
    I don’t have herpes, but if I did, I would certainly be championing this cause rather than disparaging it (unlike those who politicize it due to the origin of the funds).

  • Chris

    The belief that a mythical market will protect people from economic collapse (think 2008), from the impacts of no zoning laws (think Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey), and from medical malpractice in the name of research (think Tuskegee Study) suggests that there’s a new religion in town. This belief is every bit as magical as those of any religion; and some of its adherents are every bit as fanatical (if not cynical) as fundamentalists. ….. My guess is that this research was being carried out in Saint Kitts because it hasn’t signed the UN Conventions on Human Rights. If they had, all human-subjects research would have to undergo review by some sort of human-subjects protections board. ….. However, it seems that the Saint Kitts government and the University where the study’s surviving lead investigator works (one has died of cancer) have launched their own investigations.

  • CanadianGuy62

    To the author (or editor, if that’s even a job any longer): it is St. Kitts, not St. Kitt or Saint Kitt or Saint Kitts…simply St. Kitts.

  • KaiserVonScheiss

    “Shutting down media outlets.” You mean shitty gossip sites like gawker that only serve to expose pieces of people’s private lives? Yeah, sorry if I don’t shed a tear there.

    Secondly, I don’t know the particulars of this specific case, but many regulations prevent useful drugs from entering the market.

  • Paco

    We should trust billionaires to put the health and safety of the public above their profits. What could go wrong?

    Thalidomide tragedy.

    • 1EqualityUSA


  • DCguy

    What a shock, the STD that the right winger Theil decides to spend his money on is one that primarily effects heterosexuals.

  • tad_boomer

    One only needs to look at all the television commercials by lawyers soliciting claims from people who took various drugs or underwent surgery with “approved” medical devices to know that even with clinical trials there is no guarantee of safety however to sidestep the process altogether just because you don’t agree with it is thumbing you nose at the “rule of law” which is the argument that most Republicans and Libertarians like to use when they are trying to justify things like immigration.

  • Creamsicle

    This freak gets his blood changed out like a radiator flush. Why should we be surprised that he doesn’t think highly of medical ethics?

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