As Russia’s war in Ukraine grabs headlines, an anti-vaccine website seeks to draw readers’ attention to an unproven claim about the origins of COVID-19.
“While you were distracted by the battle for Ukraine, documents were released confirming that Moderna created the COVID-19 virus,” read a headline from March 14 on a story published on The Expose, a UK website that describes itself as “run by extremely ordinary, hard-working people who are fed up with the fear, lies and propaganda perpetuated by the mainstream media”.
Under the headline, the story – which bore the anonymous signature of “a concerned reader” – alleged that new evidence “proves beyond reasonable doubt that the COVID-19 virus was created by the pharmaceutical giant that made billions” from a vaccine.
The article was reported as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Learn more about our partnership with facebook.)
That’s because he drew a drastic – and wrong – conclusion from a recent scientific paper that the study’s lead author himself said he couldn’t agree with.
About the complaint
The story of The Expose refers to a February 23 article in the Daily Mail regarding a recent scientific article published in Frontiers in Virology. The Daily Mail said it fueled “new suspicions that Covid may have been tinkered with in a lab”.
The Daily Mail and The Expose articles both said the authors of the article had discovered that part of the genetic code found in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 matches part of the code found in genetic sequencing that vaccine maker Moderna filed for a patent in 2016 for cancer research – three years before the virus was discovered.
According to The Expose, the likelihood of this match is so rare that it amounts to irrefutable proof that Moderna created the virus that causes COVID-19.
“They calculated that the odds of a Moderna-patented 19-nucleotide sequence appearing randomly in Covid-19 under circumstances where it does not appear anywhere else in nature are 1 in 3 trillion,” wrote The Expose. . (Nucleotides are the basic building blocks of nucleic acids, such as DNA and RNA.)
The Expose goes on to conclude that Moderna released SARS-CoV-2 “in order to sell its vaccines and destroy its customers’ immune systems because our immune systems reduce their profits.”
We have contacted Moderna for comment on the complaint, but have not received a response.
The real study at the center of The Expose’s claim was published on February 21 and authored by seven researchers working at institutions around the world, including the University of Oregon, the University of Padua in Italy, the University of Michigan and the University of South Florida, as well as Pan Therapeutics, a for-profit company in Switzerland that develops anti-cancer drugs.
The authors of the article wrote that when searching for a online database known as BLAST for a 12-nucleotide sequence found in the COVID-19 spike protein, they discovered a 19-nucleotide sequence that they believe was an exact reverse match found in the sequence of the Moderna-patented gene. They wrote that such a finding “may occur randomly, but other possibilities should be considered.”
DESTROYor Basic Local Alignment Search Tool, is an online tool from the National Library of Medicine that allows users to compare “nucleotide or protein sequences against sequence databases”.
The authors of the paper said the corresponding code sequence was found in the virus’s furin cleavage site, one of the three main regions of the coronavirus, and which researchers say plays a key role in allowing the virus to penetrate deep into a person’s lungs and cause severe illness.
Dr. Bala Ambati, an ophthalmologist and research professor at the University of Oregon, was the study’s first author.
He told PolitiFact that the peer-reviewed article was “published as a perspective, the main purpose of which was to stimulate discussion.”
“We understood from the start that this game could be a fluke and we made that very clear in the article,” he said.
When asked if the study proves the article’s claim that it was definitive proof that “Moderna created the COVID-19 virus,” Ambati said the researchers’ sole focus was further study.
“We do not slander any person, company or country. We do not control social media and therefore cannot respond to it,” he said.
Reviews of researchers
Referencing statements from scientists who responded to the Frontiers in Virology study, Health Feedback fact checkers noted that the corresponding code sequence “is not unique” to the gene patented by Moderna and also “may occur in nature”.
The Daily Mail article itself cited two critics. Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, told the Mail that the study’s finding was an “original observation” but not an “irrefutable weapon”. Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said the match was “surely entirely coincidental”.
Experts we spoke to agreed.
“It’s an interesting coincidence, but nothing short of astonishing that it’s irrefutable proof of a lot of anything, let alone that Moderna somehow predicted COVID-19 and has patented the sequence,” said Dr. David Gorski, oncologist and editor of the website. scientific medicinetold PolitiFact.
Gorski said the 12-nucleotide sequence the study authors are looking for isn’t very large. “One would expect, by chance alone, many matches doing a BLAST search,” he said.
Gorski wrote more in depth on the subject here.
Dr Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa whose lab studies coronavirus infections, said the claim is not supported “by any credible data”.
What we know about the origins of COVID-19
The question of the origin of COVID-19 continues to be an ongoing topic of discussion and research. In 2021, PolitiFact found that scientists generally concluded that the virus resembled natural viruses. However, they were also paying attention to the theory that he somehow leaked from a research lab in Wuhan, China.
The World Health Organization in 2021 established the WHO Scientific Advisory Group on Origins of New Pathogens to assess and advise the organization on studies of the origin of COVID-19 and other pathogens. He is expected to publish a report soon on the studies that are urgently needed, a WHO epidemiologist says Nature.
And President Joe Biden in August 2021 said the United States would continue to work with the WHO in this investigation.
Ambati said there are reasonable hypotheses about the origin of COVID-19 from either a lab leak or from natural sources, but said most of them “are not prospectively testable. “.
“We want to stimulate discussion between all relevant parties on both ‘sides’ of the issue to try to produce prospective experiments that can prove or disprove their assumptions. This is the main goal of our perspective paper,” Ambati said. .
One article claims that a recent study that found a matching chunk of code in the COVID-19 virus and a synthetic gene sequence patented by Moderna is proof that “Moderna created the COVID-19 virus.”
A matching sequence of 19 nucleotides was found, but experts described it as likely incidental and not definitive evidence of a lab leak or creation by Moderna. The study authors didn’t say it proved anything, but rather hoped their hypothesis would spark further discussion and experimentation.
We rate this claim as false.