Moderna’s CEO said in January that the company’s total production in 2019 was “100,000 dose,” referring to all its vaccines and therapeutics. Online posts distorted the remarks to falsely claim Moderna made COVID-19 vaccines “before the pandemic started.” Moderna’s first batch of COVID-19 vaccines wasn’t ready until February 2020.
The first COVID-19 cases were identified in China in December 2019. In March 2020, after the coronavirus had spread around the world, the biotech company Moderna was ready to begin the first human tests of its vaccine.
The Moderna vaccine is made of modified messenger RNA, or mRNA, which temporarily prompts human cells to make one piece of the coronavirus — its surface spike protein. The immune system responds to the spike proteins, generating antibodies and activating other immune cells that then protect against the virus.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized the Moderna vaccine for emergency use in December 2020, a week after granting authorization to a similar mRNA vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, as we’ve written.
The two companies were able to quickly develop mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 because researchers already knew from past experience with other coronaviruses that the virus uses the spike protein to enter cells and cause infection.
As early as 2019, Moderna had been working on an investigational mRNA vaccine to protect against MERS, another disease caused by a coronavirus. When the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, became available in January 2020, the company began work on an mRNA vaccine to target the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
Moderna announced on Feb. 24, 2020, that it had released the first batch of its COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA-1273, for human use. The vials were sent to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for use in clinical trials.
In January at the World Economic Forum, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, while explaining the company’s manufacturing capacity, told a panel that Moderna’s total production was “100,000 dose” in 2019. He was referring to the number of doses of its vaccines and therapeutics for all uses, not to the COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna had not yet begun production of that vaccine.
But social media posts misrepresented Bancel’s remarks, falsely claiming that he said the company was making the vaccine before the pandemic was recognized. “URGENT — Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel Admits Company Produced 100,000 COVID-19 Doses in 2019 Before The Pandemic Started,” read an Instagram post on Feb. 9.
Another Instagram post shared on Feb. 12 repeated that claim, linking to a brief clip of Bancel’s remarks at the WEF. “Did they predict the pandemic?” read the caption.
From Thousands of Doses to Millions
A spokesman for Moderna told us the social media posts were “inaccurate.”
Bancel was referring to “the approximate total doses in 2019 (across vaccines and therapeutics) for cancer, rare diseases etc. Entire portfolio,” Moderna spokesman Christopher Ridley said in a Feb. 14 email. “We received the COVID-19 sequence on Jan. 10, 2020, which started our COVID work,” Ridley said.
The full discussion of the WEF panel on Jan. 18 in Davos, Switzerland, titled “State of the Pandemic,” is available on the WEF website. (Bancel’s comments are about 10 minutes into the 46-minute video.)
Bancel, the former CEO of the French diagnostics company BioMérieux, was asked to comment on the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development and the “scaling” to address different variants and subvariants. He responded, “So the great news versus 2020, where we are today is we are at manufacturing capacity.” He went on to say, “When the pandemic happened, Moderna had made 100,000 dose in 2019 for the whole year.”
Bancel then said he remembered walking into a manufacturing head’s office and asking, “I say, how [do] we make a billion dose next year? And they look at me a bit funny, and say, what? I say, yeah, we need to make a billion dose next year, there’s going to be a pandemic.”
Bancel said something similar at an American Heart Association event in November 2021, when he said Moderna made fewer than 100,000 doses of any vaccine in 2019 and was on track to ship as many as 800 million doses in 2021.