Injecting People with Herpes for Fun and Profit

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I’ve mentioned Peter Thiel before — he’s the billionaire tech bro who supports Donald Trump and paid millions to shut down Gawker Media because he didn’t like their liberal bias. He’s also the guy who maybe thinks that injecting yourself with the blood of the young will keep you alive forever or something. Yeah, he’s basically a vampiric Bond villain.

He’s just upped his Bond villain game by conducting unauthorized scientific experiments on humans on an island in the Caribbean in order to escape the ethical oversight the United States requires. That’s right, he’s gone full Dr. Moreau.

OK, so he’s not necessarily splicing together humans and hamsters or anything but he is injecting the herpes virus into people without any kind of safety oversight. Thiel is an investor in a company that claims to have a vaccine for genital herpes. But because the company is run by Libertarians, they hate the Food and Drug Administration and are hoping to prove that all it does is prevent breakthroughs in medical science. They claim that were the FDA around in the 1930s, we never would have discovered a vaccine for polio. If they manage to release a successful herpes vaccine, they’ll have made the world a better place AND proved the FDA pointless.

There are a number of problems with that, which I’ll get to in a second. First, the research: Thiel’s company, “Rational Vaccines” (dear lord) teamed up with Southern Illinois University to fly 20 individuals with genital herpes to St. Kitts, an island in the West Indies where you can do pretty much whatever you want, medically speaking.

According to Rational Vaccines, they gave the vaccines to the patients and found that it reduced the number of flare-ups they had, albeit with large patches of inflamed skin as an occasional side effect.

They submitted their study to peer reviewed journals, none of which accepted it because the reviewers were horrified by fact that the researchers were experimenting on humans with no oversight. So, we have no real idea of how successful the vaccine really was at preventing flare-ups.

Now let’s get back to the idea that this vaccine can’t happen with the FDA in place, and that the polio vaccine wouldn’t have been discovered either. First of all, there are already at least three other herpes vaccines that are being perfected in the US by universities and clinics working with the FDA as usual. Experts expect one of them to be submitted to the FDA for the final okay after completing trials next year. So yes, it is possible to create this vaccine using all the standard safety protocols that are in place to keep people from dying.

And speaking of people dying, let’s talk about the polio vaccine and the initial attempts to create it. The first attempts were in 1935, when two different teams royally screwed up and ended up giving an unsafe vaccine to thousands of children, several of whom died. More were paralyzed for life or suffered other terrible side effects.

That’s what happens when you give an improperly tested vaccine to humans without safety oversight.

And by the way, the FDA did exist back then. They just didn’t have the right policies in place to prevent tragedies like that — the history of the FDA is written in human tragedy, as with each horrific misstep changes were made to prevent them from happening again. Are you familiar with the thalidomide tragedy of 1959? That’s where thousands of babies were born with severe deformations because their mothers took a drug for nausea. Only Americans didn’t experience that horrific tragedy because the FDA didn’t allow thalidomide on the market here.

Yes, red tape sucks, and sometimes it can be abused and misused. But by and large, the FDA has saved countless lives by setting a standard for what products we can give to human beings, and setting a standard for how we treat human beings in the clinical trials leading up to the release of a drug. And that’s a good thing, whether the Libertarians want to admit it or not. In fact, it’s so obviously a good thing that I wonder how much of their hatred of the FDA is simply based on wanting to get the most bang out of their pharmaceutical buck. And they’re hoping the American people will fall for their sob story about saving people from herpes. I hope you don’t fall for it. We have other vaccines, and no one has to die to get them.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I might be remembering incorrectly, but I recall that it was single Dr. in the FDA who delayed approval for Thalidomide in the U.S. long enough for the teratogenic effects to be exposed. She had noticed that some other, more minor, negative side effect (dermatitis?) hadn’t been fully accounted for, and took a great deal of flak for her ‘obstruction.’

    1. Animal rights activists still argue that all that animal testing to see if, say, penicillin, was safe was an unnecessary step on the way to approval, and millions died as a result.

      Of course, for every penicillin, there’s also a thalidomide. Which is why we don’t approve drugs right after the molecule is discovered.

  2. Peter Thiel baffles me for so many reasons. He is an openly gay man, but wants to serve in a cabinet that includes Mike Pence? He also has a scholarship where he pays people not to go to college, and do productive things in the world, which according to many hasn’t worked out so well.

    (By the way, the title “Injecting People with Herpes for Fun and Profit” totally made me first believe I was going to read about his plans to injecting herpes into those that didn’t have it, rather than injecting vaccines into those that already had herpes).

    1. Also, “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” means “I have no problem with gay people, but I’ve voted straight R every election.” A lesson Democrats forget every damned cycle, always reverting to the radical centrists within a Friedman unit.

      What’s really annoying about radical centrists is, they redefine everything. So, now the “creative class” includes not just the traditional writers, artists, musicians, and actors, but also engineers and bankers; after all, it is, ah, “creative accounting”. The more traditional creative jobs were declining in the early 2000s because of piracy, but the other jobs were increasing, so you could argue for a “rise of the creative class”.

      And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get President Trump.

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