A report from a German newspaper claiming that President Donald Trump wanted to secure exclusive American access to a coronavirus vaccine has proven to be false, but only after the story was repeated and spread by mainstream media outlets including Reuters, The Guardian, and Business Insider.
Reuters later stealth-edited its story to incorporate official statements denying the original newspaper report. But a New York Times journalist had already shared the Reuters article before it was altered. An MSNBC producer also shared the story.
The German newspaper Welt am Sonntag published a story Sunday claiming that White House officials had offered about $1 billion to the German biopharmaceutical firm CureVac to move to the U.S. and to make a coronavirus vaccine for the U.S. only. The company has indicated that it hopes to have a vaccine by June or July.
The newspaper cited an anonymous source in the German government claiming to “confirm” that President Trump wanted the vaccine “only for the United States,” then covered reactions from German politicians, who declared “no country should have a monopoly on any future vaccine,” according to the summary from reporters Paul Carrel and Andreas Rinke.
Article changed by @Reuters, but without any kind of editor's note.
THIS IS GONE:
"Contacted by Reuters, a spokeswoman for the German Health Ministry said: “We confirm the report in the Welt am Sonntag.”" https://t.co/h68owdKfyS
— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) March 16, 2020
But the story quickly fell apart. CureVac issued a statement on Twitter denying that it received an offer from the U.S. government. “CureVac rejects all allegations from press,” the firm said.
To make it clear again on coronavirus: CureVac has not received from the US government or related entities an offer before, during and since the Task Force meeting in the White House on March 2. CureVac rejects all allegations from press.
— CureVac (@CureVacAG) March 16, 2020
Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, also denied the story, saying that the original Welt story “was wrong.”
Not true. The Welt story was wrong. But Business Insider, Reuters and others went with it anyway despite not having their own sources. Now everyone is back peddling. https://t.co/88UohluwTj
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) March 15, 2020
At the time of this writing, the text of the Reuters story’s altered section reads:
A German Health Ministry spokeswoman, confirming a quote in the newspaper, said: “The German government is very interested in ensuring that vaccines and active substances against the new coronavirus are also developed in Germany and Europe.”
“In this regard, the government is in intensive exchange with the company CureVac,” she added.
Multiple English-language news outlets picked up the Welt story, including Reuters’ text. The revised Reuters story contains no editorial indications that it was corrected or updated, which is standard journalistic practice.
New York Times deputy weekend editor Aman Batheja tweeted out the first version of the Reuters article — hyping it as a “bombshell story” — to his nearly 15,000 followers. His post was retweeted more than 11,000 times.
The Times later ran its own story that cast doubt on the original Welt article. The Times reported that another German official said it “was unclear whether the [Trump] administration simply wanted the research work, and for any resulting production to be on American soil.”
The Guardian‘s story still claims that President Trump wants the vaccine for “exclusive U.S. access.” Other outlets that spread the debunked story include Business Insider, NBC News, and Mother Jones.
MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin also spread the Business Insider article to his more than 693,000 Twitter followers.
Welt alleged in its article that Trump administration officials met with CureVac’s CEO Daniel Menichella earlier this month to discuss the vaccine. Menichella later stepped down from the company.
The newspaper claims that the U.S. subsequently tied to broker a deal for exclusive access to the vaccine, which then prompted the German government to attempt a counter offer.