Moderna Surveillance Operation Targeted Independent Media Voices
The second part of our investigation shows how Moderna carefully monitored and attacked voices questioning mandates, industry profiteering, and the efficacy and safety of childhood vaccinations.
This investigation is Part Two of a series about internal Moderna documents and is published in collaboration with RealClearInvestigations. See here for Part One of the investigation.
Finances at the vaccine manufacturer Moderna began to fall almost as quickly as they had risen, as most Americans resisted getting yet another COVID booster shot. The pharmaceutical company, whose pioneering mRNA vaccine had turned it from small startup to biotech giant worth more than $100 billion in just a few years, reported a third-quarter loss last year of $3.6 billion, as most Americans refused to get another COVID booster shot.
In a September call aimed at shoring up investors, Moderna’s then-chief commercial officer, Arpa Garay, attributed some of the hesitancy pummeling Moderna's numbers to uninformed vaccine skeptics. "Despite some misinformation," Garay said, COVID-19 still drove significant hospitalizations. "It really is a vaccine that's relevant across all age groups,” she insisted.
To get past the “misinformation” and convince the public to take continual booster shots, Garay briefly noted that Moderna was “delving down” on ways to partner “across the ecosystem to make sure consumers are educated on the need for the vaccine.”
What Garay hinted at during the call, but didn’t disclose, was that Moderna already had a sprawling media operation in place aimed at identifying and responding to critics of vaccine policy and the drug industry. A series of internal company reports and communications reviewed by RealClearInvestigations show that Moderna has worked with former law enforcement and public health officials and a drug industry-funded non-governmental organization called The Public Good Projects (PGP) to confront the “root cause of vaccine hesitancy” by rapidly identifying and “shutting down misinformation.”
Part of this effort includes providing talking points to some 45,000 healthcare professionals “on how to respond when vaccine misinformation goes mainstream.” PGP and Moderna have created a new partnership, called the “Infodemic Training Program,” to prepare health
The company has also used artificial intelligence to monitor millions of global online conversations to shape the contours of vaccine-related discussion. The internal files -- shorthanded here as the Moderna Reports -- show high-profile vaccine critics were closely monitored, particularly skeptics in independent media, including Michael Shellenberger, Russell Brand, and Alex Berenson. PGP, which was funded by a $1,275,000 donation from the Biotechnology and Innovation Organization, a lobby group representing Pfizer and Moderna, has identified alleged vaccine misinformation and helped facilitate the removal of content from Twitter, among other social media platforms, throughout 2021 and 2022.
Emails from that period show that PGP routinely sent Excel lists of accounts to amplify on Twitter and others to de-platform, including populist voices such as ZeroHedge.
The messages also suggested emerging narratives to remove from the platform. "People opposed to vaccines are capitalizing on the NYT [New York Times] article about the CDC withholding vaccine information. The articles do not contain misinformation themselves but are using the news to further prove the CDC is untrustworthy," wrote Savannah Knell, PGP's senior director of partnerships, in an email to a Twitter lobbyist in September 2022. In another email the following month, Kaitlyn Krizanic, PGP's senior program manager, told Twitter to be on the lookout for "reports that Sweden is no longer recommending the vaccine for children." In some cases, conservative accounts expressing outrage at restrictive pandemic policies, such as vaccination passports, were deemed by PGP as “misinformation” that warranted removal.
The Moderna Reports consistently show the company raising red flags about those reporting documented side effects of the vaccine the biotech company was selling. Such concerns, which may be typical of corporate public relations efforts that want their product shown in the best light, take on a darker cast when it involves medicine injected into people’s bodies.
Like the Twitter Files, the Moderna Reports highlight the push by powerful entities – especially government, Big Tech, and Big Pharma – to identify and brand dissenting opinions about establishment narratives as risky forms of speech. The growing network these efforts rely on shows the growth of what has been called the censorship industrial complex. Moderna’s faltering financials also suggest, at least for now, the limits of that project.
Public Good Projects and Moderna did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In an internal email sent last July, Moderna notified its team of its latest efforts to shape the vaccine debate. “We have partnered with PGP (The Public Good Projects) and Moderna's Global Intelligence, Corporate Security, Medical Affairs, Corporate Communications, Clinical Safety and Pharmacovigilance teams to provide media monitoring for misinformation at scale,” Marcy Rudowitz, the company's customer program lead, wrote. “If and when a response is needed, our team will notify the appropriate stakeholders with recommendations,” she added.
The extent to which the company may intervene to shape content decisions is not clear. PGP continues to boast close relations with establishment institutions, including major medical associations.
The rise of censorship is inextricably connected to the pandemic, which emerged in the U.S. in early 2020. As federal, state, and local governments imposed unprecedented regulations on Americans in the name of public health, efforts arose to discredit counter-narratives that could be spread easily on social media. Early in the pandemic, criticism of policies such as lockdowns and vaccine mandates came almost entirely from independent media, which faced shadowbans and outright censorship on various platforms.
When they introduced their vaccines in 2021, manufacturers such as Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson also had a powerful financial interest in bolstering such censorship.
Moderna, perhaps more than other drug firms, is overwhelmingly reliant on the continued success of its vaccine. The company announced a price hike of up to $130 a dose this month, far higher than the $15-26 for American federal contracts, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re expecting a 90% reduction in demand,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said, when he was asked to defend the decision. “As you can see, we’re losing economies of scale.”
Far from acting as a neutral arbiter, the Moderna Reports show that the company blurred the lines between public relations and public health. In many cases, Moderna’s intelligence and communications team targeted accurate information that had “the potential to fuel vaccine hesitancy” as menacing forms of misinformation in its reports. Given the size and scope and the censorship industrial complex, it can be difficult to draw a clear straight line between Moderna’s surveillance and actions taken against specific articles, posts, and writers. Instead, as Garay suggested, the company is one stream in an evolving ecosystem aimed at undermining dissent.
Independent journalist Alex Berenson is a repeated subject of the company’s surveillance efforts. A former reporter for the New York Times, Berenson quickly emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of vaccine-related policies. He was among the earliest to cast doubt on the Biden administration's false claim that the vaccinated people could not transmit the COVID-19 virus to others. After government pressure on Twitter, Berenson was banned from the platform in 2021, only to return after successfully litigating against the company.
He appears to still be in the crosshairs. In September 2023, Moderna flagged a tweet from Berenson that highlighted the CDC's data showing that among 1 million mRNA-vaccinated teenagers, there were from zero to a single COVID death and up to 200,000 side effects.
The company cited Berenson's tweet under a report headline "Attacks on pediatric COVID-19 vaccines escalate" and claimed he had "cherry-picked data." However, the company did not directly rebut any of Berenson's claims in its report. Rather, Moderna noted the "high-risk" danger of Berenson's viral tweet related to the potential for low child COVID-19 vaccination rates. "Fears about side effects and long-term dangers are major reasons parents report not vaccinating their children," the report stated. It further concluded that "resistance to COVID-19 vaccines for children can be a gateway to broader anti-vaccine beliefs."
Other Moderna reports flag Berenson’s tweets for “misinformation about mRNA safety” and claim that he is a “conspiracy theorist” for suggesting that health authorities have not properly taken into account the documented risks of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) for young men receiving the vaccine. Such questions have been posed by an increasing number of health professionals, but the misinformation reports dismiss any Berenson criticism as inherently false.
“It's nice to know Moderna is watching me,” said Berenson, when asked about his response to the revelations. “I'm watching them too. mRNA shots carry unacceptably high heart risks for teenagers and young adults. Nearly the entire rest of the world accepts this reality and now discourages or bans people under 50 from taking mRNA Covid boosters. It is unconscionable that Moderna and Pfizer continue to market them to non-elderly adults."
“They can call me whatever they like,” he noted, “but they can't stop my reporting."
Russell Brand, the British commentator and comedian, is also a repeated name in the Moderna misinformation files. The left-leaning populist routinely pillories the pharmaceutical industry for exploiting the pandemic to generate unprecedented profits.
Moderna has closely monitored Brand’s criticism of the drug industry.
In various “low-risk” reports produced in August 2023, Moderna flagged videos produced by Brand twice. In one, Moderna noted that Brand had broadcast a monologue about Jonathan Van-Tam, a former senior health official who helped formulate COVID-19 policies in Britain. Van-Tam had just taken a position with Moderna, a move that raised eyebrows with many in the press. In the video, Brand noted that the company had just “made a fortune during the pandemic selling vaccines to the government,” and that the “government worker that bought all those vaccines” was now moving through the revolving door.
In another report, Moderna alleged that Brand “claimed that COVID-19 vaccine mandates were based on a lie in a recent podcast episode.” The video was broadly accurate. The monologue highlights CDC documents that had come to light showing that officials were aware that the virus would “break through” and still infect vaccinated patients. In an ironic twist, Brand finished the segment with a discussion of efforts to censor debate around the vaccine.
Moderna noted they were not yet taking action on this broadcast, but “we are monitoring with our partner, the Public Good Projects.”
The following month, several media outlets reported that several women who insisted on anonymity were claiming that Brand had abused them nearly twenty years ago. The ensuing media firestorm, which led to YouTube demonetizing his account, became fodder for other Moderna misinformation reports. The company warned that the cancellation of Brand was sparking a backlash among social media users, who believed that he may be targeted by government and corporate censors for his outspoken opposition to pandemic narratives.
In a Moderna high-risk report, the company noted that speculation was swirling that "allegations are part of a conspiracy to silence the comedian, who has been a vocal opponent of COVID-19 vaccines." The report linked an X video of Brand sharply criticizing Moderna and Pfizer for generating “$1,000 of profit every second" in 2021. The specific claim of profiteering was a mainstream claim, a statistic that was produced by Oxfam.
Nowhere in its reports on Brand did Moderna highlight any incorrect information. But the reports noted that they monitored Brand because he "has a large platform with over 6.6 million YouTube subscribers and over 21 million followers across multiple social media platforms." Moreover, his "videos are widely circulated in anti-vaccine spaces where he is viewed as a truth-teller and threat to authority,” and that Brand maintained support from Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk.
The Moderna misinformation reporting system reveals that the pharmaceutical firm maintained an interest in pandemic-related issues that go beyond vaccine policy, overlapping with general issues surrounding the unexplained questions that still swirl around the source of the pandemic.
The company, for instance, flagged discussions around news last year of a congressional whistleblower who came forward with allegations that the CIA suppressed an assessment from analysts that COVID-19 originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The story has garnered widespread coverage in NBC, Science, and ABC News, among other outlets.
But Moderna’s misinformation alerts flagged Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and journalist Michael Shellenberger for distributing information about the CIA allegation. Shellenberger – with whom this reporter has worked on the Twitter Files – had exclusively reported earlier last year that U.S. government sources believed that the “patient zeros” of COVID-19 were a group of Chinese scientists at the Wuhan lab – a major revelation later confirmed by the Wall Street Journal.