The fact that a pharmaceutical company was working on a vaccine for a pandemic disease that had been discovered a month earlier is not a revelation.
Published Jan 19, 2023
The CEO of Moderna “admitted” during the 2023 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos that the company was making a COVID-19 vaccine in January of 2020 “before SARS-CoV-2 even had a name.”
It is neither a “breaking” revelation nor an “admission” that Moderna was working on a vaccine for the newly discovered coronavirus variant (then called 2019-nCoV and later renamed SARS-CoV-2) in January 2020; both Moderna and the federal government issued myriad press releases at the time. Further, mRNA vaccines like the ones Moderna had been developing well before the COVID-19 pandemic had long been considered a possible pathway to a vaccine to stop a coronavirus-driven outbreak.
A rhetorical tactic popular amongst conspiracy theorists is to paint a banal statement of fact as an accidental admission of something nefarious. A Jan. 18, 2023 tweet by an account that frequently promotes anti-vaccine conspiracy theories is a textbook definition of this phenomenon.
“Breaking,” the viral tweet read, “Moderna CEO admits on live air at Davos they were making a COVID-19 vaccine in January of 2020 before SARS-CoV-2 even had a name.” Davos refers to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum — a meeting that occurs in January of each year and is a frequent target of conspiracy theorists.
First of all it is not breaking news that Moderna was working on a vaccine in January 2020. This information was widely announced and never hidden from the public. It’s not even news.
Second, and not to get too pedantic, the virus that causes COVID-19 did have a name at that time: the 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV. That the nomenclature later changed to SARS-CoV-2 is not relevant to the implication that Moderna had some sort of early knowledge of a virus that — by that point in time — had already been sequenced in its entirety and had already made international news.
By Alex Kasprak
Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.
January 30, 202311:06 PMUpdated 15 hours ago
Fact Check-Vaccine work before SARS-CoV-2 had a name does not prove pandemic was planned
U.S. biotech company Moderna Inc announced its collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop an mRNA vaccine against the novel coronavirus in January 2020, before the virus was officially named SARS-CoV-2 in February 2020. Users online are circulating that widely-known fact to imply the COVID-19 pandemic was planned.
A Facebook user sharing a CNBC interview at the Davos forum in January said: “Moderna CEO admits on live air at Davos they were making a COVID-19 vaccine in January 2020 before SARS-CoV-2 even had a name… (I KEEP TELLING U ALL…THIS IS ALL PLANNED)” (here). Another user said, “The ‘jab’ was NEVER created for the virus. The virus was created to impose the ‘jab’” (here).
The clip was taken from a CNBC “Squawk Box” interview with Bancel on Jan. 18, 2023. At timestamp 0:17-0:42, Bancel says Moderna was working on a COVID-19 vaccine before the virus had an official name, saying “I think there was no name at that time” (here).
The virus that causes COVID-19 was first identified in late 2019, and announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Dec. 31, 2019 (here), (here).
On Jan. 23, 2020, the WHO-affiliated Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) announced funding for three separate research teams to work on potential vaccines against the novel coronavirus (here). One of the research teams included a partnership between drug and vaccine developer Moderna and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Moderna issued a similar press release at the time (here).
Prior to February 2020, leading health organizations including the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) referred to the newest coronavirus as the “2019 novel coronavirus” or used descriptive abbreviations including 2019-nCoV or nCoV-2019 (here), (stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/84450).
On Feb. 11, 2020, The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which develops agreed scientific names for viruses based on their characteristics and relationship to other viruses (ictv.global/about/code), announced in a preprint article that the novel coronavirus was a close relative of the SARS-CoV-1 virus that caused an outbreak in 2002-2003, and would be called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2 (here). The article was formally published the following month in the journal Nature (here).
The WHO also announced COVID-19 as the name of the disease caused by the virus on Feb. 11, 2020, noting that it had communicated with ICTV about naming both the virus and the illness (here).
However, the WHO said it would begin referring to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus” instead of “SARS-CoV-2” when communicating with the public because “from a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.” It also noted that these designations were not intended to replace the official name of the virus (here).
Missing context. Moderna Inc announced its plans in January 2020 to develop a vaccine against the virus identified in late 2019 as the cause of a respiratory disease outbreak threatening to spread globally. Neither the disease nor the virus that causes it had formal names until February 2020.