Storygram: Eileen Guo’s “He Started a COVID-19 Vaccine Company. Then He Hosted a Superspreader Event”

Brassfield/Wikimedia Commons; NASA; Joel Bass/The Open Notebook (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Peter Diamandis

 

The past year is littered with tales of the rich and privileged living as if there were no pandemic. They’re escaping on jets, hanging out with their friends on private islands, and throwing parties in secret clubs.

And one of them, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, threw an in-person conference in defiance of a Southern California stay-at-home order. A $30,000 ticket gave attendees a front-row seat to what would become a COVID-19 superspreader event, sickening at least 20 people, as Eileen Guo, a senior reporter at the MIT Technology Review, reveals in an investigation.

Guo does more than just break the news that the Abundance 360 Summit happened. Drawing on confidential emails, texts, and other documents, she writes a gripping behind-the-scenes narrative of why and how it happened. She details the months of planning that went into the gathering and the internal objections that were raised and ignored. And when cases did start rising, she writes, Diamandis and his team failed to report them to authorities and urged employees to keep quiet. That didn’t work.

In weaving a tale of wrongdoing, Guo uses a simple but effective technique: She lays out events as they happened and provides context. She introduces us to a businessman who publicly proclaims to take COVID-19 seriously, then lets us in on private conversations that suggest the opposite. She chronicles the shortcuts taken leading up to the event, and sprinkles in reminders of the growing public health threat, until the two collide. At the end, Guo becomes a subject in her own story as she questions Diamandis in a tense interview.

As Guo explains in a Q&A that follows the annotated story, she pulled together her 2,900-word investigation at breakneck speed—four days—despite many a curveball. While she suspected that other reporters were sniffing around, she didn’t anticipate being scooped by Diamandis himself. Right before she was set to interview him, he published a blog post in which he apologized and defended his efforts to keep the event safe. But this unexpected mea culpa turned out to be a reporting gift, because it allowed Guo to answer some questions and raise new ones that the entrepreneur couldn’t answer.

Weeks later, Guo followed up with another bombshell: that during a private webinar after the conference, attendees were recommended fraudulent COVID-19 treatments, from colloidal silver to amniotic fluid. They were available for purchase—from a company where Diamandis is a cofounder and director.

At the Review, where she’s been a staff writer since October 2020, Guo works a beat called “tech policy, ethics, and social issues.” That’s meant examining how algorithms have kept vaccines out of reach from frontline doctors and how the pandemic has widened “the digital divide” between those who can and cannot afford internet access. “Before being a tech journalist, I actually consider myself an accountability reporter,” Guo says. What interests her most, she says, are the unintended consequences of business and policy decisions.

In the case of the Abundance 360 Summit, Diamandis has said he didn’t intend for anyone to get sick—but as Guo’s dogged, meticulous reporting shows, he should not have been surprised that they did.

“It’s a story of someone that is better off and thinks that the rules of COVID-19 and public health [don’t] apply to them,” she says.

 


What Do You Want to See?

Jump to Q&A with Eileen Guo

Story Annotation

He started a covid-19 vaccine company. Then he hosted a superspreader event.
With cases spiking, the Los Angeles area banned gatherings. One Silicon Valley entrepreneur thought he could beat the odds.
By Eileen Guo, MIT Technology Review
Published February 13, 2021
(Reprinted with permission)

 

On Sunday, January 24, with Southern California’s intensive-care units (ICUs) at full capacity, a shuttle bus made the short trip from a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica to an open-plan office in Culver City, carrying business executives from as far away as Israel, Hawaii, and Vancouver.This anecdotal lede paints a powerful scene, exemplifying the contradictions that define this story: A bubble of wealthy privilege operates inside a world of crisis and death.

Some had paid upwards of $30,000 to attend a pandemic-year rarity: an indoor, in-person, mostly unmasked business conference, called the Abundance 360 Summit.

Created by Peter Diamandis—who is also the founder or cofounder of several space companies and Silicon Valley innovation hub Singularity University, as well as of covid-19 vaccine developer Covaxx—the conference was a lucrative opportunity to hold court with a group of his “patrons.” These are businessmen (and a small handful of businesswomen) who pay large annual and conference fees for the privilege of gathering to talk about some of Diamandis’s favorite topics: AI, longevity, exponential growth, and “the abundance mindset.” Speakers at the 2021 event, some of whom appeared virtually, included Silicon Valley luminaries such as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Jonathan Hofeller, the executive in charge of SpaceX’s satellite mega-constellation, Starlink.

A360, as its organizers call it, was being held despite widespread recommendations  from public health experts to limit contact with non-family members, wear masks, and hold any gatherings outdoors to limit the spread of covid-19.

And in California, this was more than a recommendation: on December 5, the state had banned all gatherings, public and private, until regional hospital ICU capacities rose above 15% again. The in-person portion of Diamandis’s gathering was illegal.To declare something “illegal” is not an editorial decision to be made lightly. But short, clear sentences that spell out the wrongdoing in question are important signposts high up in a complex investigative story.

And at first, it seemed they were in the clear—even though staff and attendees were mostly unmasked. Everyone took daily coronavirus tests. Nobody fell sick during the January 24-26 meetings.

But covid-19 can take time to incubate. The first confirmed positive results came back on January 28, during the conference’s online-only virtual-reality day, after most participants had flown home.

Over the next few days, the number of positive tests climbed sharply. By the morning of February 3 at least five A360 employees, two speakers, and one family member who wasn’t at the conference had tested positive, while an additional three people showed symptoms, according to internal communications I viewed. (I granted anonymity to sources, who expressed fears of retaliation for speaking out.)By referring to herself as “I” and not in the third person (such as “an MIT Technology Review reporter”), Guo signals that she is going to be a character in this story.

By the end of the day, that number would more than double. Another family member tested positive. Then, during a team Zoom meeting, Will Weisman, A360’s executive director, said that a large number of patrons had tested positive, including one who infected his wife and child, recounted an individual close to Diamandis on the call.

In a blog post published on the afternoon of February 12, Diamandis confirmed that 12 patrons had tested positive.

Less than a week after A360 attendees flew back to their pandemic home bases across the globe, at least 20 people, including not only those who were present at A360 but also some of their family members, had confirmed cases of covid-19.This introduction establishes the stakes and summarizes the main findings (the number of COVID-19 cases) while building narrative momentum. Listing the cases in the order that they were internally discovered—rather than just stating the total—creates suspense and naturally invites the reader to ask, “How could this have happened?”

Pandemic as business opportunity

When covid-19 first made its appearance in the United States, 59-year-old Diamandis, who has an MD from Harvard Medical School and degrees from MIT, was skeptical.Now that we’re hooked and want to know the backstory, Guo steps back even further in time to give useful history. This isn’t just any conference and Diamandis isn’t just any conference organizer.

In mid-March, when six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area issued the nation’s first stay-at-home order, Diamandis tweeted, “We are witnessing the viral spread of fear that is definitively damaging both national economies and global markets” and, later, “The level of panic is doing as much damage.”

But ever the entrepreneur, Diamandis saw business opportunities in the pandemic. On March 26, the XPrize Foundation, which he chairs and which runs challenges using prize money to encourage innovative solutions to big problems, launched the XPrize Pandemic Alliance, with $7.5 million in prize money to fight covid-19.

He teamed up with Mei Mei Hu and Lou Reese, spouses and co-executives of biotech company United Biomedical. The three cofounded Covaxx, a vaccine development company that functions as a United Biomedical subsidiary (and is not to be confused with the global Covax effort to provide lower-income countries with vaccine doses).

Hu and Reese had already made news for providing free antibody testing for all residents of Colorado’s San Miguel County, home of Telluride, a resort town where many coastal millionnaires, including Hu and Reese, own second homes. “There are advantages to having biotech executives as neighbors,” as The Atlantic noted at the time.

In the days that followed, Diamandis praised the Chinese government’s “unprecedented” measures to contain the pandemic, from locking down an entire city to the “rapid national coordination of public action.”Citing Diamandis’s own remarks, Guo shows that he portrays himself in public as someone who follows public health guidelines and uses his wealth for good—which makes his private actions, soon to follow, seem all the more surprising or hypocritical. Guo tells me that sources flagged some of these tweets and remarks to her, but others she found through her own digital sleuthing. Her tip: Screenshot everything in case it’s deleted later.

Yet, by going through with the in-person portion of the Abundance 360 Summit, Diamandis ignored government notices and legal mandates implemented in the state of California.

Even A360’s parent company, Singularity University, had canceled its largest in-person gatherings due to the pandemic. “We have been closely monitoring the global pandemic situation and taking all measures to make sure our staff and program are safe. It’s been a difficult decision, but … we have decided to postpone our November SU Executive Program,” wrote Singularity staff in an email dated October 8.

As the fall wore on and positive cases, death rates, and hospitalizations in Southern California grew precipitously, some team members charged with marketing A360 were dismayed that the event was set to continue.

On November 30, James Del, Singularity University’s head of content, conveyed his team’s growing concerns to Diamandis in an email, copying Singularity University CEO Steve Leonard, Singularity investor and board member Erik Anderson, and A360 executive director Will Weisman.

In his email, which was shared with me, Del urged SU to “consider the appearance of hosting an in-person gathering as cases in Los Angeles shatter their own records daily.”

“The current restrictions in LA county ban gatherings nearly completely,” he continued. “Going out and inviting the entire SU community to a city that is under strict lockdown seems like a PR crisis waiting to happen, and I suggest that we strongly consider changing our marketing focus to digital only.”This email is a reporting gift. It leaves no room for ambiguity: There were people on the inside who did not want this event to happen.

Just days later, on December 3, California enacted a regional stay-home order, to be triggered when ICU capacity fell below 15%.Here, Guo shifts from internal A360 conversations to remind us of the big picture of what was going on with COVID-19 cases and regulations at the time. The order went into effect on December 5 and prohibited private gatherings of any size, other than constitutionally protected religious services and protests; closed nonessential businesses, except for critical infrastructure and retail; and required 100% masking outside the home. It also banned the use of hotels and lodging for nonessential travel.

A360 made adjustments as well. It changed the meeting venue first from the Beverly Hilton to the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, before finally settling on the XPrize Foundation’s office in Culver City. A360 also shifted where its guests would be staying, from a Four Seasons to Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica. It cut the number of in-person attendees, from 127 to 16, as reported by Bloomberg in late December, before increasing numbers again to between 30 and 33 patrons, who each paid a $30,000 annual membership fee, according to conference materials I obtained.

Once speakers, A360 staff, and technical and support personnel were taken into account, however, at least 84 people were present, according to Diamandis’s own count. The event went ahead despite public health orders that made it clear that neither booking a hotel for nonessential travel nor the in-person gathering itself was permitted.

“A360 is an event I’ve committed to run for 25 years. That’s sort of an important hallmark of an event,” Diamandis told me in an interview, by way of explanation as to why he was so keen for it to take place in person. “We’re in year nine, and it has always been an in-person event.” He added that one day, “eventually A360 will be fully virtualized.”While we’ve heard lots up to this point from Diamandis second-hand, this is the first time we’re hearing him speak in an interview. His quotes here are meaningful because at this point, we have a greater understanding of all the effort that went into holding this event in-person. Structuring an investigative story often involves careful decision-making about how and when to present allegations against a subject versus let the subject respond to those allegations.

When a conference isn’t a conference

On February 12, two days after Los Angeles Department of Public Health officials arrived at the doorstep of the XPrize office and had an “interaction” (as Diamandis described it) with Will Weisman and XPrize’s “operations person,” and just before a scheduled interview with me, Diamandis published his blog post, titled “A false sense of security.”This sentence stands out because it feels so alive. This is an active story, with new developments evolving by the minute. In it, he wrote that he was “humbled and pained” by the experience, and detailed the precautions his team had taken to prevent covid-19 from entering and spreading in the “immunity bubble” they had created for the event.

In that same blog post, however, he also claimed that the event was not a conference at all, but a “virtual studio-broadcast production,” with patrons who were there because they had insisted on being there as a live audience.

“It was a pretty outspoken group saying, ‘We really want to come,’” he told me. “And that started a conversation around the lines of, Could this be done? Could we have a small studio audience, and do it safely?”

Diamandis said that the decision to move forward was done in consultation with an audio-visual company that he contracted, the name of which he could not remember during our interview,Precisely stating which details are—and aren’t—disclosed by the subject of a story can be very revealing. This particular lack of disclosure stands out because Diamandis has just told the world publicly that he put lots of effort into making the event safe, and that he justified the decision on account of it being a “virtual studio-broadcast production.” Yet he can’t name one of the three advisers that helped him make what would turn out to be a very consequential decision. and two medical providers: Fountain Life, an anti-aging health and wellness company that he cofounded, and Matt Cook, an anesthesiologist and founder of a similar integrative medical company, BioReset.

A studio broadcast production would normally require a film permit. A360 did not apply for a permit from Film.LA, which handles filming requests for Culver City, where XPrize was located, both Diamandis and Film.LA confirmed.One of many important accountability details in this story, and one that Guo knew to chase down thanks to discussions with her sources. She tells me that in the minutes after the blog post went up but before her interview, she called Film.LA, whose confirmation in turn allowed her to press Diamandis. Diamandis suggested that because XPrize’s office often hosted web broadcasts, there was no need to apply separately for a film permit.

However, multiple employees recounted to me previous discussions on how A360 leadership might apply for filming or even religious exemptions to get around the ban on gatherings.Here and throughout the story, Guo presents her findings in an intuitive and effective order: She presents a claim by Diamandis, then what other people, regulators, and public health bodies have to say about it.

And even if the company had submitted an application, Culver City does not currently offer indoor filming permits, while the LA County Public Health Department’s protocol for music, television, and film production requires safety plans for special events to be approved 10 days in advance.

Additionally, the protocol does not allow live audiences of the general public, except for “small, hired audiences (50 people or fewer).” Given that the 30 or so patrons were not hired, but rather were paying upwards of $30,000 for their A360 memberships and event attendance, it is unlikely that they would meet this criterion.All this fine print makes it clear: This reporter did her homework.

Thank you for testing

On January 28, the day that the first employee tested positive for covid-19, the A360 team sent out a chipperA factual adjective that says so much. email (subject line: “Please Re-Test / and Thank you!”) to event speakers and patrons, which a recipient shared with me.

“What an amazing few days! We’re hopeful that our extensive Covid PCR testing protocol has kept you and everyone safe,” wrote “Peter & the 360 team,” before sharing that “one of our team members unfortunately has come up positive,” and asking everyone to re-test and let A360 know if anyone “should feel ill, or test positive.”

This request for follow-up does not, however, appear to have been for the purpose of reporting clusters of cases to county public health authorities, as required by several California state laws.

CA Assembly Bill 685, for example, went into effect on January 1, 2021, and requires employers to notify both employees potentially exposed and the local public health agency if more than three people living in different households test positive for covid-19 in a two-week period.

Diamandis admitted that no one from his organization reported the positive cases to the public health department, and suggested that his and his team’s struggles with covid-19 could be to blame. “I’ve been in bed for days, as have half my staff, and we’re trying to figure out, you know, which way’s up and down,” Diamandis told me. “This is the first time we’ve been able to actually take a full accounting of where we are, what went wrong, and tell the story.”

Yet while they did not have time to report the cases to the authorities, A360’s leadership did find time to contain information about the outbreak.

On January 29, Weisman started a new group text among employees called “A360 Covid,” screenshots of which were provided to me. In it, he confirmed the names of two event attendees—an event speaker and a patron—who had tested positive. Then he instructed employees to keep the news quiet.

“Really important that there is no further outreach to a broader set of people,” he wrote. “There will be no further emails to attendees or vendors.”

Diamandis chimed in by text as well: “Let’s keep all Covid related data, ideas, and communications on this single channel, please.”Once again, these quotes are so revealing, it’s smart to print them in full rather than paraphrase.

In the following days, employees used the thread to share their test results and symptoms. At first, they self-reported their results through a company contract with a private testing provider. But after one employee expressed frustration that he was testing negative despite what he felt were clear symptoms (and especially since a family member had already tested positive), Diamandis suggested that employees use a “spit test” conducted at Calamigos Ranch, the venue owned by a friend that was, at one point, slated to hold the event.

On at least one occasion after A360 employees switched their testing location to the ranch, an A360 staff member shared the results on the group text message thread. “All tests were negative, except [Employee name], with a strong positive!” she wrote. The employee in question responded, “Oh wow! Ya feeling good,” suggesting that this was the first time that he was informed of his own test results.Just a really amazing, how-is-this-happening sentence. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When asked about the incident, Diamandis said that he was not aware of the text message exchange, then said that if it did occur as described, he would be worried. “Of course,” he said, there are “HIPAA approved processes,” referring to the law protecting health data.

Under HIPAA guidelines, “COVID-19 test results are considered confidential medical information under both [California] state and federal law,” which requires separate record keeping viewable “only by members of management with a true need to know,” according to a blog post by law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. Moreover, it says, “If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the employer must not reveal the employee’s identity to others in the workplace.”

Additionally, according to CDC guidelines, “Employees undergoing testing should receive clear information on the manufacturer and name of the test, type of test, purpose of the test, reliability, limitations, who will pay, how to understand the results, who will receive the results, and consequences for declining a test.” Some A360 employees interviewed said that they were not comfortable with the testing performed at the ranch, and how close its owner was to their employer.

A360’s precautions, according to Diamandis’s blog post, included requiring everyone who attended to obtain a negative test 72 hours before attending, and then be tested immediately on arrival and on every subsequent morning of the event. But mask-wearing was not enforced, and there was no request to the participants to self-quarantine for any length of time before the gathering.

It has been known since early in the pandemic that the virus can incubate for several days before becoming detectable. Self-isolation would have been especially important for anyone arriving from further afield—like the participants traveling from overseas. The CDC recommends that travelers take a covid-19 test three to five days after traveling and then quarantine for a further seven days even if the test is negative.

Diamandis apparently believed that testing could be an infallible way to circumvent these evidence-based precautions. Under a section in the blog post titled “Lessons Learned,” he wrote of being “flabbergasted” to discover, a year into the pandemic, how unreliable some tests could be, when he used them on himself after developing symptoms and they still came back negative.Yet again, the story repeats his claims then states the known facts about COVID-19. The juxtaposition largely speaks for itself.

Who’s tracking positive cases?

In the post, Diamandis admitted that 24 people, including himself, had contracted covid-19. The actual numbers he cited, however, added up to only 21 people: 12 members/patrons attending the event, four faculty, and five A360 staff.

When asked to account for this discrepancy, he admitted that there could be two support staff who had tested positive. “Someone is tracking,” he said, though he said he was not sure who.The reporter is meticulously documenting inconsistencies and vagueness, and pointing out when no clarity is given.

I asked whether another number, 32 positive cases, that I had calculated based on reporting, was plausible. Diamandis responded that “to include the family members who have had cases,” a total of 32 “seems probably low.”Up to this point, the story has raised questions about Diamandis’s past remarks and actions. Now, as the narrative reaches the present, Guo becomes a full character in her story. As flies on the wall during this nail-biting interview, we see how he responds, or tries to respond, to Guo’s questions.

His blog post also did not acknowledge that public health orders had banned gatherings between December 3 and January 25 in California. Diamandis would not respond when I asked whether he was aware that he was violating state health rules by holding his event. “I knew that there were challenges. But I don’t know that I want to answer that on the record,” he said.

“I am trying my very best to turn the situation to one where I can speak loudly and clearly, and share what I learned in a positive fashion, not get burned in the fire but use it to drive a spotlight on,” he told me. “Listen, I screwed up here.”

I asked how this “screw-up” reflected on his board leadership of a covid-19 vaccine company and an organization giving away $7.5 million in prize money to solve the challenges of covid-19, including encouraging mask-wearing.

“I’ll have to take a minute to think about that,” he said. “Let me send you an email.”This is a deliciously deadpan conclusion. My only wish: I would have loved one more sentence to complete the thought, like, “I never heard from him.” In any case, Guo should be commended for asking such tough, necessary questions and ending on a note that leaves me wanting to read more.

 


A Conversation with Eileen Guo

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

 

Stephanie M. Lee: How did you get tipped off to this story and what made you want to pursue it?

Eileen Guo: I got a tip from someone and the tip just led to more and more information coming out. This was two weeks after everything had happened. I was told at that point that there was already a number of people that had tested positive and that it sounded like there had been a cover-up. Those were the pieces that made me say, “Okay, this is something worth talking about and bringing to light.”

The additional, personal piece is I’m based in Los Angeles. When [my sources] talked me through the event that happened—the time frame, the conversations that were had in December and November and earlier—it was really visceral for me. I remember the conversations I was having just as a person living through this. My roommates and I decided we were going to cut down who we were going to see completely when we were going into that surge period. One of my roommates has family in Los Angeles, and we made the decision, as a small three-person pod, that she wasn’t going to see her family for three weeks or however long it was that this was going to last.

SML: How long did it take you to report and write the story?

EG: We published the story on Saturday, February 13. I actually only got the tip on the Tuesday before. We knew from the beginning of when I got the tip that there was another reporter that had been on this story and had covered both A360 specifically and Singularity [University, an incubator cofounded by Diamandis] for many years.

When I had gotten all the facts and had an understanding of what happened, I had scheduled an interview with Peter Diamandis. An hour before our interview [on Friday], he published his own version of what had happened on his own blog. And as soon as we saw the blog post go live, we said, “OK, we’re going to publish as soon as we can.”

SML: Your reporting relied on information from anonymous sources. How did you find these people and persuade them to share so much with you?

EG: I reached out to so many people for this story, especially participants of the event. If you’re doing an investigative piece or an exposé, and you’re trying to talk to the target of your investigation but also other people, the way I would approach it is: Start from the outside. You’re trying to [prevent] the person at the center from actively—once they are aware of your investigation—dissuading others and trying to intimidate others from speaking with you, which happened.

There’s always this discussion that you have to have, either internally or with your editors, of when you want to be okay with an anonymous source. And for us, in this story, there was fear of retaliation. [Anonymity] was something we felt pretty comfortable offering to the sources. From my perspective as a journalist, we have the terms of “on background,” “on the record,” “off the record.” [But] I try whenever possible just to be a lot clearer about, whether or not we’re using those terms, do you feel comfortable with me using your name? Do you feel comfortable with me saying this came from however we want to describe it? The other thing I do is I make it clear that this is something we can revisit.

With a couple sources, I told them, “I’m not going to use anything that you’re uncomfortable with. I’m not going to show you my reporting and allow you to see the story beforehand, but I will check in with you.” And I don’t always do this, but in this case I said, “I’ll check in with you [about] whatever it is of yours that I’m going to use, to make sure you’re fully comfortable with that and that your identity is protected.” With that, the sources felt pretty comfortable sharing with me some pretty confidential documents, records, and different things like that. We made the decision that we weren’t going to quote anyone anonymously because we couldn’t back [their claims] up. But I said to several of my sources, “That’s fine, if you can give me the documents to back up what you’re saying.”

SML: When and how did you finally approach Peter Diamandis? And why do you think he went ahead with the interview?

EG: I just called his cell phone on Thursday and he picked up, didn’t recognize the number, said he wouldn’t talk to me, asked me to send an email, which I did. He ignored my email. I tried to call him back the next day, he blocked me. I sent another email: “We’re going to publish this story. I really want to understand why you did this and hear it from your perspective. Are you open to that?” He ended up saying yes and cc’ing his PR representatives.

I found out in our interview that a couple days earlier, the L.A. County Department of Public Health had stopped by and they were already doing their own investigation. And also, I had heard from my sources that there was a big meeting at the office with the entire staff, and apparently a lot of the meeting was focused on trying to figure out who had spoken to me. He knew this was coming. I think his PR rep wisely suggested to him to try to get ahead of this story and talk to me.

SML: Right before, he dropped a blog post where he detailed the precautions that his team took to try to prevent an outbreak. What was your first reaction?

EG: It was like, Oh, God—a sinking feeling in my stomach. But it was really immediately apparent to me, once I had actually gone through it, that he didn’t really grapple with the main issue, which was that he had violated public health orders.

[Prior to the post and interview with Diamandis, sources had told Guo they’d heard of COVID case totals as high as 32, but she didn’t have any supporting documentation.] I was actually very nervous about being able to document the number. What was really interesting about his blog post is he confirmed the numbers, and he confirmed it in a really messy way. He said in his blog post that 24 people that he tracked had tested positive, but when he actually broke that number down, it was 21 people. I asked him about that in the interview, and he wasn’t able to speak to this discrepancy. That itself became a finding, which suggested he wasn’t really tracking, or maybe that concerned with, how many people had actually tested positive.

I asked him, “Well, based on my reporting, I think there’s 32 people that have tested positive. Does that number sound right to you?” I was really surprised that his response in the interview was he thought that was low, based on secondary infections. It was actually a big reporting win for me that he went ahead and tried to preempt the story.

SML: Do you have advice for doing contentious interviews?

EG: I had my editors look at my accountability questions beforehand to make sure that we were as neutral as possible in all of our wording. I think also part of it is your tone of voice. You can ask hard questions, but ask them in a way that is not going to, if possible, make them even angrier than they might otherwise be.

SML: Your anecdotal lede juxtaposes the local ICUs being full with the conference starting. Why did you start with that versus a matter-of-fact lede (e.g., “A conference held by this person was a superspreader event”)?

EG: I wanted people to, in the simplest way possible, feel this visceral reaction that I had of having been in Los Angeles during that time. I had a bunch of other numbers—like of what the actual case counts were, how many people were dying—but I thought that focusing on the over-capacity ICU units would be the fastest way to do that.

SML: You reference so many facts and events, from COVID-19 case counts and the health orders to Diamandis’s statements and internal conversations. How did you organize all that information?

EG: I built for myself a very, very detailed [Google Doc] timeline of what happened. In the timeline was not just the events of A360, but also the bigger context, which was really important to me to show the stakes of the story. I could have in my head this comparison of what A360 was doing, what Peter Diamandis was saying, what his staff was doing, with this is what else is happening: these are the public health orders, this is when they went into effect. I had a timeline of who tested positive on his staff [and] when.

SML: You tell the story chronologically, and as you work to the present, you go back and forth between this is what actually happened and this is how he tries to spin it. Did that structure come naturally?

EG: Once I had all the facts in front of me, and the additional facts of his context and what he was saying about it, this story was the easiest story I’ve ever written. It’s just basic journalism: this is what happened; you get a comment. His words juxtapose themselves so closely against what happened.

SML: You are a character, especially in the last section, when you turn your interview into a scene. How did you decide to use “I”?

EG: Every mention of “me” (i.e. , “he told me”) originally appeared as “MIT Technology Review.” It was only pretty far into the edits that we decided to change to first person, both because “was shared with MIT Technology Review” read awkwardly, and because I felt like I had been made a character in the story. By Thursday, I was hearing from multiple sources that Diamandis was aware of my reporting, and that very much affected how I could continue to report.

SML: What would you have done with more time?

EG: I realized that this could either be a really big story that has a lot more elements than were in this one, or it could be a, Let’s do this as quickly as possible and get this first part of the story out first. We ended up going with the latter option. If we had had the time, we might have considered making it a broader story.

The other part is … I knew the names of all of the people that had attended this event and [my editors and I] just simply didn’t have enough time to even have a conversation about whether we wanted to name those people.

SML: The story concludes: “I asked how this ‘screw-up’ reflected on his board leadership of a covid-19 vaccine company and an organization giving away $7.5 million in prize money to solve the challenges of covid-19, including encouraging mask-wearing. ‘I’ll have to take a minute to think about that,’ he said. ‘Let me send you an email.’” First of all, I assume he doesn’t email you?

EG: No, he does not send me an email.

SML: How did you decide on this open-ended ending?

EG: There were a couple other things he had said that I considered for the kicker. There was a line in our interview where he talks about how he didn’t try to cover this up with his community: As soon as the first person tested positive among staff, he sent out an email to the attendees to let them know. I considered ending with that, because it struck me that he saw his community as these patrons that have paid him and not the broader community of people—Californians, Los Angeles residents, even the service providers of his event, who he also didn’t track. But I wanted to keep it a little bit more contained.

We ended up going with it because so much of this article is about spin and is about debunking spin, and this is like, okay, you can’t debunk this, you don’t even know what to say about this. It was partially that, and partially, this story isn’t over. I knew at this point, if my editors let me, I was going to do more stories.

With this story, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end, in terms of planning the event, holding the event, getting people sick with COVID after the event. But that is also still just the first part of the story. The second part is what happens next: Are there consequences for this person? Does the county public health [department] step in and do any kind of investigation, or does this end here? Because a lot of times people get away with it when they are in these positions of privilege.

SML: Now, as for your second story, you mention in it that you knew about the webinar when you were working on the first piece. Why did you make this a standalone?

EG: It was mostly a question of timing and how quickly we had to get the first story out. There was a lot that we would have had to verify if we wanted to include this, and we just didn’t have the time to do so. I didn’t actually see the webinar until after I published the first story, and once I watched the webinar then it became clear that this is very problematic and should be written about.

SML: How was the reporting and writing experience different the second time?

EG: [With my first story], it felt like structurally it wrote itself. This one was a lot harder: What is the main thing that we’re holding accountable? The main point of the story was that he provided this space and tacitly recommended and sometimes more than tacitly recommended these fake cures. That was the centerpiece and that needed to remain the central through line. It was easy for me to get distracted by all the other crazy things that were also happening.

The other piece that was key for this story was looking at the physicians’ records: the state medical boards maintain records on each physician. That was a big part of building up this profile of the quackery, essentially. In the case of one of the doctors, George Shapiro, he had been charged by the FBI, he had been cited and censured by the state medical board. All of these were really important in painting this bigger picture. Always with an investigation, it’s about patterns.

SML: Did someone tell you to look up the doctors’ records or did you think of that on your own?

EG: I didn’t get a tip-off. Because this space of regenerative medicine is so new and controversial and lacking in evidence, I was just really curious if any of these doctors had had previous run-ins. [Earlier in the day before Guo published her story, Bloomberg had run its own piece about the webinar and reported on Shapiro’s FBI charge, a detail that Guo in turn cited.] It made sense to me to check state medical boards. I didn’t think to do a PACER search [an electronic database of federal court records], which also would have made sense.

SML: Do you have more follow-ups in the works?

EG: We’ll see. If there is more to report, then yes, but how many more rabbit holes do you want to go into? Peter Diamandis is a public figure and important in tech, but he’s not by any means the “biggest” or “most influential” or any of the superlatives. With every follow-up story, there just has to be a clearer and clearer reason beyond just “look at this crazy thing.”

 

 

Courtesy of Eileen Guo

Eileen Guo

Eileen Guo is the senior reporter for technology policy, ethics, and social issues at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and audio producer covering inequality, injustice, and unintended consequences for publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Wired, among others. Fluent in Spanish and Chinese, she has reported on the ground from Afghanistan, China, Central and South America, Western Europe, and across both the rural and urban United States. Her work has been supported by grants from the International Women’s Media Foundation, The Fuller Project, Fund for Investigative Journalism, and Type Investigations, where she is a 2020 Ida B. Wells fellow. Outside of journalism, you can find her off the coast of SoCal, trying not to fall off her surfboard. Follow her on Twitter @eileenguo.

 

 

 

Courtesy of Stephanie Lee

Stephanie Lee

Stephanie M. Lee is a reporter at BuzzFeed News, where she writes about science, health, and medicine with a focus on accountability. Previously, she was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Food Writing. She is a UC Berkeley graduate and lives in San Francisco. She can be found on Twitter @stephaniemlee.

 

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