Social media posts claiming that U.S. drugmaker Moderna made the virus that started the COVID-19 pandemic have been repeatedly debunked as false. But that hasn’t stopped them from popping up everywhere on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.
An example: “Research Confirms Novel Coronavirus Was Manufactured By An American Company” was the No. 1 trending topic on Weibo on March 24, with 1.2 billion – that’s with a ‘b’ – views in a single day. On March 31, it still attracted some 5.5 million views.
The trend took off after the Chinese state media outlets Global Times and China Daily republished an article by Tao Wen, a blogger on China’s dominant messaging app, WeChat.
The article began with the false claim that 36 U.S. biolabs in Ukraine “manufacture biological weapons.” That Kremlin-generated conspiracy theory has been debunked by Polygraph.info and others. The article also falsely claimed those biolabs were using bats to study coronaviruses.
Then, this (bogus) bombshell:
“British media revealed the shocking news that the novel coronavirus was manufactured by the United States,” the article claims.
The "British media" that the article refers to is the Daily Mail newspaper. However, the actual source of the claim that the novel coronavirus was manufactured by the United States is The Exposé, a British website that has published inaccurate and baseless anti-vaccine health information debunked by multiple fact-checking platforms.
The false claim began circulating on March 14, when The Exposé published an article, “Whilst you were distracted by the Battle for Ukraine, Documents were published confirming Moderna created the Covid-19 Virus.”
That article did cite a February 23 Daily Mail article, which cited a study published in the research journal Frontiers in Virology. The study said Moderna had patented “a tiny chunk of DNA” matching the genetic sequence in a part of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 “three years before the pandemic began.”
A “spike protein” is a specific feature of a coronavirus through which the virus penetrates host cells and causes disease. Other viruses also have spike proteins.
The study published in Frontiers in Virology was reviewed by an expert on the publication’s review panel. The Daily Mail did acknowledge the possibility the genetic sequence match was a coincidence rather than “smoking gun” proof the virus came from a lab – a hypothesis that persists despite evidence pointing to an origin in animals.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the U.K.’s Warwick University, told the Daily Mail the findings were interesting, but “not significant enough to suggest lab manipulation.”
“We're talking about a very, very, very small piece made up of 19 nucleotides (the basic structural unit of nucleic acids such as DNA),” he told the newspaper. “So it doesn't mean very much to be frank, if you do these types of searches you can always find matches.”
The Exposé was more emphatic, however, claiming the discovery had “proven beyond a reasonable doubt … that Moderna made Covid-19.”
While Moderna declined to comment on that claim, other fact checkers addressed it.
PolitiFact reached out to the lead scientist of the study, Dr. Bala Ambati, an ophthalmologist and research professor at the University of Oregon.
PolitiFact quoted Ambati as saying he could not endorse the “sweeping” and “false” conclusions reached by The Exposé.
“We understood from the beginning that this match could be random chance and stated this in the article very prominently," he said. But when asked if the article offered definitive proof that "Moderna created the COVID-19 virus,” Ambati said the paper’s goal was to invite further study.
“We are not casting aspersions on any person, company, or country, but rather raising the hypothesis that recombination in a human cell line with a lab leak could be the origin of SARS-CoV-2,” Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted him as saying.
Ambati maintained that both a lab leak and natural origin theory for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 remain plausible.
Still, PolitiFact cited fact checkers at the review site Health Feedback who found that the 19-nucleotide long segment in question is neither unique or "specific to manmade sequences."
"It [the sequence] can be found in other living things, showing that the sequence occurs naturally. The presence of a short, identical gene sequence isn’t evidence that the virus was engineered," Health Feedback found.
Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, whose lab studies coronavirus infections, told PolitiFact the claim made by The Exposé is not supported "by any believable data."
Craig Wilen, a professor of immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, was also dismissive of the study published in Frontiers in Virology.
"This 'study' and 'hypothesis' are complete garbage and are more akin to a conspiracy theory than evidence or research," he told AFP.
He said the SARS-CoV-2 genome is about 30,000 nucleotides long, adding "the idea that a 19-nucleotide sequence overlap proves anything is complete nonsense."
The Exposé is no stranger to COVID-19 disinformation.
In January 2022, The Exposé spread the conspiracy theory that most Germans “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19 “will have full blown Covid-19 vaccine induced acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) by the end of January 2022.”
In July 2021, the website claimed that “in reality 4 in 5 [pregnant women] suffered a miscarriage” after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.
Faced with criticism over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has spread disinformation to deflect criticism.
In February 2021, the Associated Press and Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab published the results of a nine-month study, which found China had taken “the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins.”
The question of whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, was engineered in a laboratory and then accidentally leaked has been a matter of hot debate.
Cases of COVID-19 were first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Some contend the virus leaked from a laboratory there. Beijing denies that, both insisting the virus emerged naturally, while also spreading conspiracy theories it was actually manufactured at a U.S. lab or U.S.-linked labs in Ukraine.
The conspiracy theory put forward by The Exposé, for example, has been widely circulated in Chinese state media.
The Business Insider news website reported that The Exposé article was republished by 45 other Chinese media outlets besides the Global Times. Moreover, articles fact-checking the Moderna conspiracy claim were removed by WeChat censors.
The WeChat account China Fact Check wrote a piece on March 24 revealing how the original study was reported on in the Daily Mail, and then spun by The Exposé.
For example, China Fact Check noted that Ambati had spoken with China Daily’s New York-based reporter, Heng Weili, and made clarifications similar to what he told PolitiFact. Heng cited those clarifications in an article, “Questions raised over code in Moderna patent,” posted on China Daily’s English website.
Ying Ye, chief executive officer of the BGI Group, a Chinese life sciences company, also published an article debunking the Moderna conspiracy.
Ying, a genetics scientist, looked up the patent number of Moderna’s DNA sequence on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website. He found that the company’s patented sequence was registered three years before the pandemic and was for cancer research.
“It’s a patent regarding oncology and has nothing to do with viruses or vaccines,” he wrote.
Both fact checks were deleted by WeChat censors.