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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.

February 13, 2021
abundance360 covid event
abundance360 covid event
Ms Tech | Getty, Wikimedia

  • At least 20 people contracted covid-19 at an indoor, mostly unmasked gathering for wealthy executives hosted by Peter Diamandis, the Singularity University and XPrize Foundation cofounder.
  • At the time, a regional stay-at-home order made the gathering illegal. The outbreak wasn't reported to authorities as required and rules on health data privacy may have been broken.
  • Diamandis is not sure how many people have tested positive, citing either 21 or 24 cases, not counting secondary infections.

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.

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.

Have more information about this story? Contact the reporter on Signal at 626.765.5489 or email at eileen.guo@technologyreview.com.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Just days later, on December 3, California enacted a regional stay-home order, to be triggered when ICU capacity fell below 15%. 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.

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 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.”

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.” 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?”

"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, 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. 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.

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.

Thank you for testing

On January 28, the day that the first employee tested positive for covid-19, the A360 team sent out a chipper 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.

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

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.”

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. 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.

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.

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.”

“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."

Peter Diamandis

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.”

Have more information about this story? Contact the reporter on Signal at 626.765.6589 or by email at eileen.guo@technologyreview.com

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