A medical worker displays the Moderna vaccine against Covid-19 on June 9, 2021 (AFP / Sam Yeh)

Moderna had not developed a Covid-19 vaccine in 2019

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Online articles and social media posts claim that Moderna developed a Covid-19 vaccine prior to the pandemic. This is false; the “secret documents” touted as proof are an agreement between a university in North Carolina, a US government research group, and the pharmaceutical company for vaccine research related to a different virus within the larger family of coronaviruses.

“Moderna had the technology for a COVID-19 vaccine before the world knew of the existence of this new coronavirus,” claims an Instagram post. It includes a screenshot of a June 21, 2021 article headlined: “Moderna developed a vaccine before the pandemic, secret documents reveal.”

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on June 24, 2021

The article from The BL and others making similar claims -- including in French and German -- were shared thousands of times according to social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle. They repeat the false narrative that the pandemic was planned, or is fake.

The articles highlight a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) between the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, and Moderna, one of two companies to develop a messenger RNA vaccine currently authorized for emergency use against Covid-19. 

The NIAID, part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), is headed by Dr Anthony Fauci who has been the target of misinformation during the pandemic.

Moderna and NIAID “agreed in Dec. 2019 to transfer coronavirus RNA vaccine applicants to the University of North Carolina,” The BL article said.

The MTA has six signatures dated between December 12 and 17, 2019, prior to the December 31, 2019 date when the World Health Organization (WHO) was informed of the onset of a mysterious form of respiratory disease. 

According to the WHO timeline of the pandemic, it received the genetic sequences for the novel coronavirus -- SARS-CoV-2 -- from China on January 11. 

A spokesperson for NIAID said that the agency’s Vaccine Research Center and Moderna have collaborated on vaccine research since 2017.

Asked about the MTA, the spokesperson said on June 23, 2021: “The materials transferred to UNC in December 2019 were vaccine candidates against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and not SARS-CoV-2.”

There are many types of human coronaviruses. MERS-CoV is the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, which was detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

UNC also confirmed the reason for the MTA. In a statement sent to AFP on June 25, 2021 the university said: “The documents refer to work by the University of North of Carolina at Chapel Hill to develop an mRNA vaccine to protect against MERS.”

Moderna did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

Not newly revealed documents

The articles shared on social media all claim to have uncovered this MTA in secret or confidential documents, but AFP found the material had already been the subject of reporting in 2020.

A Google search for “NIH Moderna confidential agreements” results in a 153-page pdf with notes in the margins that reveal it was uploaded by journalist Bob Herman of the US online news site Axios. The MTA is found starting on page 105.

Herman published an article on June 25, 2020 about the possible consequences of NIH co-owning intellectual property that is essential to Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine. 

The non-profit organization Public Citizen also published an analysis of the documents in June 2020. 

AFP Fact Check has debunked other false and misleading claims about the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine here.


Julie Charpentrat

Translated by