On Aug. 26, Moderna sued fellow vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech, two companies that partnered to create a COVID-19 shot.
Moderna accused Pfizer and BioNTech of patent infringement when making their COVID-19 vaccine by copying mRNA technology it developed between 2010 and 2016.
But social media posts are misrepresenting allegations in the lawsuit and claiming it proves the COVID-19 vaccine was developed before the start of the pandemic. It feeds into broader conspiracy theories that the pandemic was planned.
An Aug. 27 Instagram post with more than 600 likes juxtaposes screenshots of headlines of two news articles. It shows the headline of a real Reuters fact-check article that debunked claims that the COVID-19 vaccine was developed before the pandemic. It also shows an actual headline of a Reuters article published on CNBC’s website about the Moderna lawsuit and highlights a paragraph from the article that explained Moderna’s mRNA technology was developed “years before the pandemic.”
Next to the screenshots is a popular meme from the FX show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” in which character Charlie Kelly claims to have stumbled into a “major company conspiracy.”
A similar Instagram post received more than 300 likes. Another post suggesting the same claim received more than 600 likes.
But the post is misleading.
Moderna had been developing mRNA technology to treat other infectious diseases before COVID-19 emerged, according to the company’s news release about the lawsuit.
Moderna’s work on its COVID-19 vaccine began in January 2020, according to The New York Times, after scientists in China published the genetic sequence of the virus. And Pfizer and BioNTech started development after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 a pandemic, according to Pfizer’s website.
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USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the claim for comment.
Moderna claims Pfizer and BioNTech copied two key features of its technology.
One is a chemical compound developed in 2010 to avoid provoking an undesirable immune response when mRNA is introduced into the body. The other is Moderna’s approach to encode for the full-length spike protein, which was developed for the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory (MERS) years before the COVID-19 outbreak.
The post implies this dispute about technology that predates COVID-19 means the pandemic must have been planned or otherwise known beforehand. But as an array of researchers and media reports have detailed, this only illustrates how the COVID-19 vaccines were developed based on technology that had been in development for years.
Both vaccines use messenger RNA, or mRNA technology, which has been developed for use in vaccines since the 1990s, according to Johns Hopkins University, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers already had knowledge about coronaviruses because they had studied the causes of the SARS and MERS outbreaks. This research – and a surge in funding – helped scientists rapidly engineer the novel vaccine.
Luck, foresight and science: How an unheralded team developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time
When a person receives an mRNA vaccine, it teaches cells to make a protein found on the surface of the coronavirus. The immune system will then respond when it encounters the actual coronavirus by recognizing the protein and attacking the virus.
Fact check: 6 of the most persistent misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines
The COVID-19 vaccine was the first mRNA vaccine to be produced on a mass scale. But Moderna is using mRNA technology to develop medicines for influenza and HIV, “as well as autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases and rare forms of cancer,” Moderna Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel said in the news release.
Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the implication that Moderna suing Pfizer for patent infringement proves the COVID-19 vaccine was developed before the pandemic. Moderna has sued Pfizer and BioNTech, and Moderna filed patents for mRNA technology between 2010 and 2016. But this technology was developed to treat other viruses. Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech started developing COVID-19 vaccines in 2020.
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