Novak Djokovic’s victorious return to the US Open this year was heralded as the triumph of an “ageless” athlete. His “greatness”, The Guardian reported, “has been defined by his ability to rise from difficult losses stronger than before”. But for the pharmaceutical giant Moderna, it came as something of a blow.
“Djokovic Crowned Anti-vaccine Hero after US Open Win,” howled the title of an internal report. It continued: “The optics of Djokovic, whose vaccine opposition barred him from competing in the 2022 US Open, returning to and winning the Moderna-sponsored competition bolsters anti-vaccine claims that vaccines — and mandates — are unnecessary.”
The report rated news surrounding Djokovic as “high-risk”, noting that “vaccine opponents are celebrating” the tennis champion and that some on social media “mockingly point out that Moderna is a US Open sponsor”. Other alerts, produced by a partnership blending marketing executives with former FBI and Secret Service analysts, also cited concerns around drug industry profits as a source of misinformation.
Far from viral deception, much of the content flagged by Moderna as “misinformation” and a supposed danger to public health was nothing of the sort, it was legitimate discussion of vaccine-related issues. But the Moderna misinformation reports, reported here for the first time, reveal what the pharmaceutical company is willing to do to shape public discourse around its marquee product. And, even affect policy-making.
Moderna did incredibly well out of the pandemic. It was shot from a fledgling biotech firm to a household name, having created one of the most effective vaccines during the outbreak. The mRNA Covid-19 vaccine catapulted the company to a $100 billion valuation and minted five new billionaires, including the chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, its chairman, Noubar Afeyan, co-founder Robert Langer, president Stephen Hoge, and Timothy Springer, a Harvard Medical School professor and early investor.