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A recent study found a small piece of matching code in the COVID-19 virus and a synthetic gene for cancer research that Moderna filed a patent for in 2016.
Critics say the finding is not as rare as the study suggests and that it’s likely a coincidence.
The study’s lead author said he hopes the work will lead to further discussion and experiments about the origin of the virus. He did not endorse the claim that it “proves” Moderna created COVID-19
As Russia’s war in Ukraine captures headlines, one anti-vaccine website is seeking to turn reader attention back to an unproven claim about COVID-19’s origins.
"Whilst you were distracted by the Battle for Ukraine, documents were published confirming Moderna created the COVID-19 Virus," read a March 14 headline on a story published on The Expose, a British website that describes itself as "run by extremely ordinary, hardworking people who are sick and tired of the fear-mongering, lies and propaganda perpetuated by the mainstream media."
Beneath the headline, the story — which carried the anonymous byline of "a concerned reader" — alleged that new evidence "proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the COVID-19 virus was created by the very pharmaceutical giant that has made billions" from a vaccine.
The article was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
That’s because it drew a sweeping — and false — conclusion from a recent scientific paper that the lead author of the study itself said he can’t endorse.
The Expose’s story refers to a Feb. 23 article in the Daily Mail regarding a recent scientific paper published in Frontiers in Virology. The Daily Mail said it stoked "fresh suspicion that Covid may have been tinkered with in a lab."
Both the Daily Mail and The Expose stories said the paper’s authors discovered a portion of genetic code found in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is a match for a part of code found in a gene sequence vaccine-maker Moderna filed a patent for in 2016 for cancer research — three years before the virus was discovered.
According to The Expose, the likelihood of that match is so rare that it amounts to smoking gun evidence that Moderna created the virus that causes COVID-19.
"They calculated that the chances of a 19 nucleotide sequence patented by Moderna randomly appearing in Covid-19 in circumstances where it does not appear anywhere else in nature are 1 in 3 trillion," The Expose wrote. (Nucleotides are the basic building blocks of nucleic acids, like DNA and RNA.)
The Expose goes on to conclude that Moderna released SARS-CoV-2 "in order to sell their vaccines and to destroy the immune systems of their customers because our immune systems reduce their profits."
We reached out to Moderna for comment about the claim but did not receive a response.
The actual study at the center of The Expose’s claim was published Feb. 21 and authored by seven researchers working at institutions across the globe, including University of Oregon, University of Padova in Italy, University of Michigan and University of South Florida, as well as Pan Therapeutics, a for-profit company in Switzerland that develops anti-cancer drugs.
The paper’s authors wrote that during a search of an online database known as BLAST for a 12-nucleotide sequence found in the COVID-19 spike protein, they discovered a 19-nucleotide sequence they said was an exact reverse match found in the Moderna-patented gene sequence. They wrote that such a finding "may occur randomly but other possibilities must be considered."
BLAST, or Basic Local Alignment Search Tool, is an online tool from the National Library of Medicine that lets users compare "nucleotide or protein sequences to sequence databases."
The paper’s authors said the matching code sequence was found in the virus’ furin cleavage site, one of the three main regions of the coronavirus, and one that researchers believe plays a key role in enabling the virus to penetrate deeply into a person’s lungs and cause serious illness.
Dr. Bala Ambati, an ophthalmologist and a research professor at the University of Oregon, was first author on the study.
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 beginning that this match could be random chance and stated this in the article very prominently," he said.
Asked whether the study proves the article’s claim that it was definitive proof that "Moderna created the COVID-19 virus," Ambati said the researchers’ only goal is further study.
"We are not casting aspersions on any person, company, or country. We do not control social media and therefore can't respond to it," he said.
Referencing statements by scientists who responded to the Frontiers in Virology study, Health Feedback fact-checkers noted that the matching code sequence "isn’t unique" to the gene patented by Moderna and also "can occur in nature."
The Daily Mail article itself quoted two critics. Lawrence Young, a virologist from Warwick University, told the Mail described the study’s finding as a "quirky observation" but not a "smoking gun." Simon Clarke, a microbiologist from Reading University, said that the match was "surely entirely coincidental."
Experts we spoke with agreed.
"It’s an interesting coincidence, but nothing so amazing that it’s slam dunk evidence of much of anything, much less that Moderna somehow predicted COVID-19 and patented the sequence," said Dr. David Gorski, an oncologist and managing editor of the website Science-based Medicine, told PolitiFact.
Gorski said the 12-nucleotide sequence the study’s authors searched for isn’t very large. "One would expect, by random chance alone, lots of matches doing a BLAST search," he said.
Gorski wrote more in depth about the topic 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 believable data."
The question of COVID-19’s origin continues to be a matter of discussion and ongoing research. In 2021, PolitiFact found that scientists had generally concluded that the virus resembles naturally occurring viruses. They were also paying attention, though, to the theory that it somehow leaked from a research lab in Wuhan, China.
The World Health Organization in 2021 established the WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins on Novel Pathogens to evaluate and advise the organization about studies into the origin of COVID-19 and other pathogens. It’s expected to release a report soon about which studies are urgently needed, a WHO epidemiologist told Nature.
And President Joe Biden in August 2021 said the U.S. would continue to work with the WHO in that investigation.
Ambati said there are reasonable hypotheses about the origin of COVID-19 either being from a lab leak or from natural sources, but said most of them "are not prospectively testable."
"We want to stimulate discussion amongst all concerned on both ‘sides’ of the issue to try to produce prospective experiments that can prove or disprove their hypotheses. That is the major purpose of our perspective paper," Ambati said.
An article claims that a recent study that found a matching stretch of code in the COVID-19 virus and a synthetic gene sequence patented by Moderna is proof that "Moderna created the COVID-19 virus."
There was a matching 19-nucleotide sequence found, but experts described it as likely coincidental and not definitive evidence of a lab leak or a creation by Moderna. The study’s authors did not say it proved anything, but rather they hoped their hypothesis would provoke further discussion and experiments.
We rate this claim False.
Frontiers in Virology, "MSH3 Homology and Potential Recombination Link to SARS-CoV-2 Furin Cleavage Site," Feb. 21, 2022
Email exchange with Bala Ambati, research professor at University of Oregon, March 22, 2022
Email exchange with Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, March 22, 2022
Email exchange with David Gorski, an oncologist and managing editor of the website Science-based Medicine, March 22, 2022
National Human Genome Research Institute, "Glossary: Nucleotides"
Science-based medicine, "The return of the revenge of "COVID-19 mRNA vaccines permanently alter your DNA" and "lab leak," Feb. 28, 2022
The New York Times, "New Research Points to Wuhan Market as Pandemic Origin," Feb. 27, 2022
PolitiFact, "Debating the origins of the COVID-19 virus: What we know, what we don’t know," May 17, 2021
Nature, "Scientists struggle to probe COVID’s origins amid sparse data from China," March 17, 2022
World Health Organization, "First meeting of Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO)," Nov. 24, 2021
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