A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant financiers of the anti-vaccine movement, contributing more than $3 million in recent years to groups that stoke fears about immunizations online and at live events -- including two forums this year at the epicenter of measles outbreaks in New York's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have long donated to organizations focused on the arts, culture, education and the environment. But seven years ago, their private foundation embraced a very different cause: groups that question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
How the Selzes came to support anti-vaccine ideas is unknown, but their financial impact has been enormous. Their money has gone to a handful of determined individuals who have played an outsize role in spreading doubt and misinformation about vaccines and the diseases they prevent. The groups' false claims linking vaccines to autism and other ailments, while downplaying the risks of measles, have led growing numbers of parents to shun the shots. As a result, health officials have said, the potentially deadly disease has surged to at least 1,044 cases this year, the highest number in nearly three decades.
The Selz Foundation provides about three-fourths of the funding for the Informed Consent Action Network, a 3-year-old charity that describes its mission as promoting drug and vaccine safety and parental choice in vaccine decisions.
Lisa Selz serves as the group's president, but its public face and chief executive is Del Bigtree, a former daytime television show producer who draws big crowds to public events. Bigtree has no medical credentials but holds himself out as an expert on vaccine safety and promotes the idea that government officials have colluded with the pharmaceutical industry to cover up grievous harms from the drugs. In recent weeks, Bigtree has headlined forums in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, N.Y., both areas confronting large measles outbreaks.
"They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles," Bigtree told reporters outside the Brooklyn meeting on June 4. "It's crazy that there's this level of intensity around a trivial childhood illness."
Thanks largely to the Selzes's donations, ICAN is now the best-funded among a trio of organizations that have amplified concerns about vaccines. ICAN brought in $1.4 million in revenue in 2017, with just over $1 million supplied by the Selz Foundation, according to tax filings.
The Selzes and the groups they support are hardly the only purveyors of anti-vaccine ideas. Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a nephew of the late president, runs the Children's Health Defense, a charity that promotes a similar agenda; it brought in $727,000 in 2017, according to tax filings. Barbara Loe Fisher, who says her son was injured by vaccines, runs a Virginia-based nonprofit that combats legislative efforts to tighten vaccine requirements. Her group, the National Vaccine Information Center, brings in about $1 million a year, according to its 2018 tax documents.
Though they are separately organized, the three groups reinforce one another's efforts. Kennedy and Bigtree often appear together at public events, while ICAN's website includes a link to Fisher's group. Bigtree's weekly livestream broadcast, which ICAN promotes, frequently features Kennedy.
New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, who has battled the nation's single worst measles outbreak since October, said she never heard of the Selzes.
"But I do know the science and the science is clear - the MMR vaccine prevents measles," she said, using the common acronym for the vaccine that prevents measles, mumps and rubella. "Any suggestion to the contrary is a threat to the health and well-being of New Yorkers."
The Selzes did not respond to emails or phone messages. A woman who answered the telephone at the couple's home on Manhattan's Upper East Side declined to identify herself.
"There's nothing to say," she said before hanging up.
Bernard Selz, 79, has more than 40 years experience in the securities industry and runs Selz Capital, a hedge fund that holds a portfolio valued at more than $500 million, according to recent filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Lisa Pagliaro Selz, 68, worked for Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Tiffany and Co. Since 1993, she has helped manage the Selz Foundation "with a focus on humanitarian, educational, geriatric, homeopathic, animal causes and the arts," according to a news release issued by LaGuardia Community College Foundation, where she was a board member from 2011 to 2016.
The Selzes' sons -- both young adults -- declined to comment. Friends and family members reached by The Washington Post said they were unable to shed light on the Selzes' philanthropic choices.
"This is a topic we don't discuss," said Marilyn Skony Stamm, a business executive and close friend of Lisa Selz. "We have differing opinions."
Stamm declined to elaborate, except to say that she values her friendship with the Selzes, whom she called "an incredibly philanthropic family."
Tax filings for the couple's charitable foundation show they began supporting the movement in 2012, when they gave $200,000 to a legal fund for Andrew Wakefield, one of the most important anti-vaccine activists.
Wakefield, a former gastroenterologist, rose to fame in 1998 after publishing a paper in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, that linked the MMR vaccine to autism in eight children. An investigation by Britain's General Medical Council, which regulates doctors, found Wakefield guilty of professional misconduct in 2010 and revoked his license. The panel concluded that Wakefield had financial and ethical conflicts of interest and had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly." Twelve years after the study's publication, the Lancet retracted it.
Wakefield declined to comment for this report. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said he was motivated by children's suffering.
"You have probably heard in the newspapers and elsewhere that I am guilty of scientific fraud," Wakefield said via Skype to a forum this spring in Rockland, N.Y. "And I want to reassure you that I have never been involved in scientific fraud. What happened to me is what happens to doctors who threaten the bottom line of the pharmaceutical companies."