The multi-millionaire anti-vax couple bankrolling groups scaremongering about immunisation
Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have long donated to organisations 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 a prominent role 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 in the US this year, the highest number in nearly three decades.
The Selz Foundation provides roughly three-quarters of the funding for the Informed Consent Action Network, a three-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.
Mr Bigtree has no medical credentials but claims he is 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, Mr Bigtree has headlined forums in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, New York, both areas confronting large measles outbreaks.
"They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles," Mr Bigtree told reporters outside the Brooklyn meeting on 4 June. "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 organisations that have amplified concerns about vaccines. ICAN brought in $1.4m in revenue in 2017, with just over $1m 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 Defence, 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 Centre, brings in about $1m a year, according to its 2018 tax documents.
Although they are separately organised, the three groups reinforce one another's efforts. Mr Kennedy and Mr Bigtree often appear together at public events, while ICAN's website includes a link to Ms Fisher's group. Mr Bigtree's weekly livestream broadcast, which ICAN promotes, frequently features Mr 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 $500m, 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." Ms Stamm declined to elaborate, except to say that she values her friendship with the Selzes, whom she called "an incredibly philanthropic family."
Most vexing to public health officials are Mr Bigtree's efforts to downplay the seriousness of measles. At one point, Mr Bigtree said he would be "ecstatic" if his two unvaccinated children, ages 5 and 10, got sick.
"We haven't had a death in decades from this disease," he said at the Brooklyn forum.
Mr Bigtree told The Washington Post that his remarks are backed by "peer-reviewed science or articles by reputable medical authorities".
"I can say that virtually every one of our grandparents survived the measles or we wouldn't be here," he said. "They also never spoke of it as being dangerous... I have no fear of the measles."
In fact, the last confirmed US death from measles was four years ago, when a 28-year-old woman died in Washington state. Meanwhile, hundreds of people have died of measles this year in other countries, including Madagascar, Ukraine and the Philippines.
Before 1963, when the vaccine was introduced to the United States, 3 million to 4 million Americans were infected each year, with thousands developing complications that led to hospitalisation or lifelong disability. Approximately 400 to 500 people died every year.
Today, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one to three children out of 1,000 infected with measles will die from complications.
Mr Bigtree, who has appearances booked through the end of the summer, dismisses such projections as government fear-mongering to advance the interests of the drug industry.