Fact check: COVID-19 vaccine makers did not halt animal tests, and there were no widespread animal deaths

Daniel Funke

The claim: Coronavirus vaccine manufacturers stopped testing shots on animals because they all died

Nearly 50% of Americans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. As more people get vaccinated, new COVID-19 infections are falling in every state.

But on Instagram, a widely shared video makes it seem like the vaccines are dangerous. Why?

"They stopped testing the shots on animals because all of the animals died & then they directly started experimenting on Humans," wrote Jimmy Levy in the caption of a May 18 post.

Levy, a singer-songwriter and season 18 "American Idol" contestant, deleted the post after USA TODAY reached out. But other versions of the video have tens of thousands of interactions on Facebook and Instagram, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

As evidence for the claim that manufacturers stopped testing the coronavirus vaccine on animals, Levy cited YouTube videos of a May 6 Texas Senate hearing.

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"I have been investigating the spiritual & psychological warfare operations on Humans worldwide for 5 years," Levy said in an email. "Many of my fans have reached out to me from all around the world about their family members getting sick or nearly dying from the vaccine, when they were completely healthy before."

While public health officials say the coronavirus vaccines do have some common side effects, there is no evidence of widespread deaths.

All three coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States were tested on animals in pre-clinical trials. As other independent fact-checking organizations have noted, there is no evidence that large numbers of animals died from the vaccine testing. The claim plays into the false notion that coronavirus vaccines are dangerous.

Clip from Texas Senate hearing

The video in the Instagram post shows a May 6 Texas Senate hearing during which a state senator and pediatrician promote misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

During the hearing, a Texas Senate committee heard from about 200 people who support a bill that would ban mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations — including requirements from private employers. One of those people was Dr. Angelina Farella, a pediatrician in Webster, Texas.

"I've given tens of thousands of vaccines in my office. I am not an anti-vaxxer," she said during the hearing. "I'm very pro-vax actually — except when it comes to this COVID vaccine, if we can call it that."

Over the course of her testimony to the Texas Senate, Farella doubted the safety of the coronavirus vaccine by saying it's been linked to more than 4,000 deaths. (It hasn't)  After her testimony, she spoke with Republican state Sen. Bob Hall about animal testing.

Here's that exchange, in context:

Hall: "Have you seen any other vaccine that was put out for the public that skipped the animal test?"

Farella: "Never before, especially for children."

Hall: "What I've read, they actually started the animal test, and because the animals were dying, they stopped the test."

Farella: "Correct."

Farella and Hall have both previously made claims that run contrary to the scientific consensus about the coronavirus pandemic.

Farella appeared in a documentary produced by America's Frontline Doctors, a group that has falsely claimed hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19. Hall has also promoted the drug, used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as a COVID-19 treatment, despite the fact that studies have shown it's ineffective.

USA TODAY reached out to Farella's and Hall's press offices for comment.

Vaccines tested on animals

Farella and Hall are flat wrong. All three coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States were tested on animals.

And manufacturers didn't stop those trials after all the animals involved died.

Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have all said in press releases that they tested their COVID-19 vaccines on animals in pre-clinical trials. In each case, trial results suggested that the vaccines were effective at limiting coronavirus infection. Studies reporting those results were published in peer-reviewed journals.

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Coronavirus vaccine manufacturers tested their shots on rabbits, mice, rats, hamsters and primates, according to Food and Drug Administration documents.

There is no evidence to suggest all the animals in those pre-clinical trials died as a result of the coronavirus vaccines. If that did happen, human trials would have been halted, reported Full Fact, a fact-checking charity in the United Kingdom.

Instead, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson went on to testtheir coronavirus vaccines on more than 100,000 human subjects last year. None of the clinical trials indicated that the vaccines caused death. The Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer and Modern's shots for emergency use in December, with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine following in February.

USA TODAY reached out to the FDA for comment.

Our rating: False

The claim that coronavirus vaccine manufacturers stopped testing shots on animals because they all died is FALSE, based on our research. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson all tested their coronavirus vaccines on animals, and there is no evidence of widespread animal deaths resulting, much less all of them. Public health authorities say the vaccines are all safe and effective at preventing serious COVID-19 infections.

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.