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Host of Virus-Spreading Tech Conference Peddles Unproven Treatment to Attendees

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·7 min read
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(Bloomberg) -- Peter Diamandis was sorry he helped spread the coronavirus with a conference he hosted this year, and he wanted to make amends. An entrepreneur with a sprawling network of technology and biotech businesses, Diamandis arranged a follow-up event—this time, virtual—to offer health information to some of the two-dozen participants who were infected in January. On that video call, he pitched unproven treatments for Covid-19 offered by one of his companies.

Wearing a jacket emblazoned with his conference logo and a baseball cap promoting one of his other ventures, Diamandis brought on a doctor who described a regimen of injecting small proteins known as peptides to help fight the virus. Diamandis referenced the supposed treatment three times in the webinar and referred viewers to his company Fountain Life, which he said could help them order the vials. “Fountain has a turnkey peptide program,” Diamandis said.

A Fountain Life business partner, George Shapiro, was also on the call. “We have good prices that we can get a lot of this to our members,” he said.

Ultimately, the pitch didn’t lead to sales, Diamandis later said. “No attendees received or purchased any products from Fountain Life,” he wrote in an email to Bloomberg. Some people who were infected at the conference were shipped boxes of peptides and other substances from a different company promoted on the call. That business isn’t owned by Diamandis, but he said he paid “100% of all costs” for the orders.

A recording of the call, which has since been removed from YouTube, represents a strange turn in an already-odd saga that had gained international attention. Bloomberg first reported on plans for the Abundance 360 conference in December, and the resulting virus outbreak was covered by the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post and others. Diamandis said at the time he was “deeply sorry” for hosting the event.

The webinar, held days after the in-person gathering ended, shows how some entrepreneurs are effectively trying to turn a pandemic that has killed an estimated 2 million people into a business opportunity.

“The furthest thing from my mind was selling anyone anything,” Diamandis wrote in the email. He said the primary aim was to provide affected people with treatment options. “At no point was the purpose to drive membership for Fountain Life nor did Fountain Life obtain any additional memberships as a result of the webinar.”

Diamandis graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1989 and sought to explore science and medicine through a lens of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. He started the XPrize Foundation in 1995 to sponsor competitions around space and later on health technology. He founded Singularity University, an education and events business focused on artificial intelligence. He’s also a founder of several medical companies, including the anti-aging startup Human Longevity Inc. and Covaxx, which is attempting to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

Among the newest ventures is Fountain Life. Diamandis started the wellness business in 2019 with the self-help guru Tony Robbins. Shapiro, the Fountain Life chief medical innovation officer, is a cardiologist who has had some high-profile patients over the years. In 2005, he was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for charges that he provided Viagra and Cialis to members of the Gambino crime family. Shapiro’s lawyer said at the time that he had done nothing wrong. A federal judge ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine and serve a year of probation.

Fountain Life runs diagnostic centers in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania with full-body MRI machines and other procedures designed for preventative health care. Membership fees can cost as much as $20,000 a year.

“We have good prices that we can get a lot of this to our members”

Diamandis’s web of projects is vast and, in many cases, seemingly unrelated. But they often find points at which to intersect. Abundance 360, a conference series that promises to help guests “become an exponential entrepreneur,” presented an opportunity for Diamandis to introduce Fountain Life to his well-heeled network.

Shapiro and his boss Bill Kapp schmoozed at the event in January with attendees, who paid $30,000 for access to special events and coaching, according to someone there who asked not to be identified and company documents reviewed by Bloomberg. Kapp gave a talk.

Two days after the in-person event concluded, Diamandis sent an email to participants. “What an amazing few days!” the message began. He then urged everyone to get tested for Covid-19 because one of his employees came back positive.

A couple of days after that, as more conference goers received positive test results, the group convened again for the online seminar. In the 84-minute video, Diamandis pitches Fountain Life four times. In two of those instances, he said he had attached a peptide order sheet from Fountain Life to the notes section of the meeting software.

“My goal here was simply to give members options if they and their physicians desired,” Diamandis said by email this week.

Shapiro talked in the video about his personal use of “hydro-chloroquine,” an apparent reference to an anti-malaria drug once taken by President Donald Trump that was widely discredited as a Covid-19 treatment. Shapiro said he tried it only “because I had it on hand, and I wanted it quick” and agreed with others on the call that another antiparasitic drug, ivermectin, “is better.” Through a representative, Shapiro declined to comment.

Most of the webinar was presented by Matt Cook, an anesthesiologist described in the email invitation as an expert on Covid-19. Cook appears frequently as a guest on podcasts and niche television channels, including the conservative network NewsMaxTV.

During the webinar, Cook said certain peptides help boost immunity, fight inflammation, give people more energy and effectively combat symptoms of Covid-19. Cook said he took precautions on the morning he attended the Abundance 360 conference by “triple dosing” himself with peptides. He took more when he left, he said.

At times waving an orange syringe in the air, at times holding a tube to one nostril, Cook gave an energetic overview of Vitamin D, olive extract, various peptides and other nontraditional treatments. None are proven Covid cures, and some have a distinct outlier status, something Cook acknowledged.

Speaking about exosomes—secretions that help cells communicate with one another—Cook described them as “a gray area” in which doctors are awaiting guidance from regulators. Currently, there are no U.S.-approved exosome products, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “I probably have 500 vials of them I’ve injected in myself over the years,” he said. Each vial sells for about $1,500, Cook added.

Several of the recommended treatments are being studied by top research institutions. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are examining whether certain peptides could block coronavirus organisms from entering human cells. That’s far from regulatory approval, however.

At least one of the treatments suggested by Cook has landed other people in court. Cook said in the video that some patients report easier breathing after using a misting device called a nebulizer to inhale drops of colloidal silver. Last year, televangelist Jim Bakker was sued by the Missouri and Arkansas attorneys general for touting Bakker’s Silver Solution. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Scientific evidence doesn’t support the use of colloidal silver dietary supplements for any disease or condition.” Cook didn’t respond to requests for comment from Bloomberg.

After Cook spoke for close to an hour, he opened the webinar to questions. One conference goer said she minimized the severity of her previous Covid-19 infection with preventive care that included regular intake of peptides. Later, she asked about the potential benefits of ozone. Cook went over various delivery mechanisms and then volunteered one he doesn’t recommend: placing a catheter in the rectum. “It can have an effect on your microbiome a little bit,” he said.

Another Abundance attendee appeared on video bundled under a comforter, propped up against a pillow and holding a pen and notebook. He wanted to know about appropriate peptide dosages for people needing acute care. Cook obliged by providing some guidelines. Earlier in the call, Cook said a monthly regimen costs about $600 for preventative care or $2,000 for an acute treatment.

Diamandis concluded the call by wishing everyone “good luck for you and your families and health.” Then he asked everyone to contact Cook and his staff at BioReset Medical or the Fountain Life team. “They’re the best resources I can offer to you,” Diamandis said.

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