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Fact check: Early work on vaccine packaging is not proof that AstraZeneca had prior knowledge of the pandemic; research was not suspended because ‘several people died’

A Facebook post falsely suggests that work to begin the creation of packaging for an experimental COVID-19 vaccine several months ago is evidence the pandemic and vaccination response was somehow planned. The post also falsely claims research into the vaccine was halted because several people died.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

The post, made on Nov. 12, 2020, includes several pictures of what appears to be AstraZeneca packaging for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine (here) . Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the packaging pictures and AstraZeneca was not immediately available for comment.

In the accompanying description, the social media user begins with the words: “NOT PRE PLANNED THEN”, a remark that suggests scepticism towards the view held by most virologists and infectious disease experts that the new coronavirus is most likely to have evolved naturally (here) . Reuters has previously debunked claims that purport to show evidence that the pandemic was somehow planned (here , here) .

The post continues: “Hello guys, yesterday I got a message from an employee working in a company producing packaging for drugs, UK. Already a few weeks ago, they were prepared for shipment to the customer. Almost a million packages and 80 doses in the package. I will quote the message: “And it’s not like they ordered it yesterday. The process of production plus color selection, the project takes several months, from what I know, the mountain knew at least 4 months ago”. So the production of packaging with the composition of the vaccine started before the announcement that the vaccine had already been invented ... Let us remind you that even research was suspended because after the vaccine was given to volunteers, several people died.”

The post does not specify which vaccine announcement it refers to. However, AstraZeneca, the company whose logo appears on the packaging pictured, made an announcement on Oct. 26th, a little over two weeks before the Facebook post was made, in which it said its experimental COVID-19 vaccine produced an immune response in both young and old adults (here) .

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford, was delivered to the first human volunteers on April 23, 2020 (here) . The Facebook post was made almost seven months later, so a reference to packaging orders being placed more than four months ago does not provide evidence that the company had prior warning of the pandemic.

Chris Halling, the director of global communications and marketing at Catalent, a contract manufacturer for drugs, biologics, cell and gene therapies, and consumer health products, told Reuters that demand arising from the pandemic had given the normally months-long process some urgency. The company was picked by AstraZeneca earlier this year to provide packaging capacity for the potential vaccine (here) .

Speaking about the general process, Halling said: “I’m sure people would appreciate that machines capable of producing several hundred of packages a minute aren’t available off-the-shelf and need to first be specified, supplier lead times to considered, installed and qualified (making sure the equipment works as it should). This process can indeed take weeks or even months.

“Given the nature of the pandemic, our partners are looking to get their investigational products into clinical trials and to patients as quickly as possible when and if approved by the appropriate regulatory authority. For example, you wouldn’t normally start manufacturing large volumes of products that were not already approved by the FDA (in the US). However, we are collaborating with our customers to expand our capacity and resources to be able to quickly supply huge volumes of doses should their COVID-19 vaccine or therapy prove successful in clinical trials.”

Meanwhile, the Facebook post’s claim that AstraZeneca’s research was stopped because “several people died” after taking the trial vaccine is false.

On Sept. 6, the trial was paused after a participant in the UK (here, here) reportedly suffered symptoms associated with a rare spinal inflammatory disorder called transverse myelitis (here). The resumption of the trial was announced in the UK on Sept. 12 (here) and in October for the United States (here) .

Also in October, a participant in Brazil died, but health authorities said the trial could continue. A source familiar with the matter told Reuters the trial would have been suspended if the volunteer who died had received the COVID-19 vaccine, suggesting the person was part of the control group that was given a meningitis jab (here).

VERDICT

False. The early work on packaging for AstraZeneca’s potential COVID-19 vaccine is not evidence that the company knew in advance about the pandemic. The company’s trial was not halted because several volunteers died.

Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .

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