In-Depth: Did Robert Malone invent mRNA vaccines in San Diego?

How a vaccine pioneer became a scientific outcast
Robert Malone
Posted at 8:27 PM, Jan 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-27 23:27:05-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – An enigmatic scientist’s work in San Diego in the late 1980s proved to be an important step in the road to the COVID-19 vaccines.

Today, he’s one of the most prominent critics of the technology he claims to have helped invent, a highly credentialed medical doctor who has amplified falsehoods and “predatory medical misinformation” about the shots, according to a letter signed by nearly 300 medical experts.

Dr. Robert Malone has become a hero in the anti-vaccine community. He's also become a “scientific outcast,” said one former colleague.

“His vaccine lies and anti-vax position are dangerous,” said a former supervisor. “He is angry and a bit unhinged.”

Four researchers who worked with Malone in the 80s and 90s described him as a brilliant scientist whose strong-headedness often put him at odds with academic mentors or supervisors. “Robert could be pretty wacky,” another former colleague said.

In the late 1980s, Malone was working at the Salk Institute when he teamed up with a scientist at Vical, Inc. named Dr. Phil Felgner for what Nature magazine calls a “landmark experiment.

Dr. Felgner invented the first lipid nanoparticle. Malone mixed the fatty bubbles with messenger RNA, and together, they showed the mixture could spur human cells in a dish to make proteins.

Malone later joined Felgner at Vical, where they were the first people to introduce these fatty bubbles carrying mRNA into mice. Malone and Felgner are listed on several papers and patent filings together.

Still, it would take decades of innovations from other labs to develop the mRNA COVID vaccines used today. “We have to put all the pieces together. And we didn’t have all the pieces back then. But we had one really interesting piece,” said Dr. Felgner.

Felgner, now the director of the Vaccine Research and Development Center at UC Irvine, has been recognized internationally for his contributions to the mRNA vaccines. Some former colleagues feel Malone deserves recognition for conceptualizing the experiments.

“There were a half-dozen people at Vical who really contributed to this,” said one Vical employee. “But who was the brainchild? Who came up with the idea? It was Robert [Malone].”

Others think Malone, who bills himself in public appearances as the “inventor” of mRNA vaccine technology, has exaggerated his role. Dr. Malone did not respond to an email from ABC 10News seeking comment.

“I think everything he’s done in the past year to sow doubt about the technology will be far more consequential in the grand scheme of things than experiments he did to move the science forward 30-plus years ago,” said Elie Dolgin, the science writer who profiled Malone and other vaccine trailblazers for Nature magazine.

Dolgin said he sees Felgner as a potential contender for the Nobel Prize whenever it’s awarded for the mRNA vaccines. Last summer, Dr. Felgner shared Spain’s version of the Nobel Prize, the Asturias Award, with six other mRNA vaccine pioneers.

There’s a scientific argument that Dr. Malone should be in the conversation too, Dolgin said, but it’s hard to imagine given his crusade against the technology and the scientific consensus surrounding the safety and efficacy of the shots.

“He wants to be seen as the inventor of this technology, and when he wasn’t by the scientific establishment, I don’t know – maybe he just turned against it,” he said.