‘Waive the Patents’: Moderna Still Refuses to Share Covid-19 Vaccine Recipe

By Jessica Corbett. Originally published at Common Dreams

With Moderna already under fire globally for prioritizing the vaccination demands of rich countries in the ongoing fight against Covid-19, the chairman and co-founder reiterated Monday that the American company will not share its vaccine recipe.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Moderna’s Noubar Afeyan claimed that appeals from the World Health Organization (WHO) and others to share the recipe assumed “that we couldn’t get enough capacity, but in fact we know we can.”

“Within the next six to nine months, the most reliable way to make high-quality vaccines and in an efficient way is going to be if we make them,” Afeyan said, noting that Moderna “went from having zero production to having one billion doses in less than a year” and “we think we will be able to go from one to three billion” next year.

“We think we are doing everything we can to help this pandemic,” added Afeyan, who is among the Moderna founders who were named to Forbes‘ list of the 400 richest people in the United States for the first time last week.

feyan also said Moderna—which has received billions of dollars from the U.S. government for development and doses of its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine—will continue to not enforce patent infringement during the pandemic, adding that “we didn’t have to do that.”

“We think that was the right, responsible thing to do,” he said of the decision to not legally go after others making Covid-19 vaccines during the crisis. “We want that to be helping the world.”

Critics of Moderna and other vaccine makers have argued that Big Pharma can help battle the pandemic by supporting patent waivers and widely sharing necessary information about vaccines and treatments to rapidly scale up production.

Last week, Moderna announced it “will build a state-of-the-art mRNA facility in Africa with the goal of producing up to 500 million doses of vaccines each year.”

As Common Dreams reported, critics warned the move could be nothing more than a “PR gimmick” designed to stall or totally derail discussions about a patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and “divert focus” from the WHO’s mRNA technology transfer initiative in South Africa.

Moderna also faced criticism after The New York Times reported Saturday that the company “has been supplying its shots almost exclusively to wealthy nations, keeping poorer countries waiting and earning billions in profit.”

After noting that “Moderna has shipped a greater share of its doses to wealthy countries than any other vaccine manufacturer, according to Airfinity, a data firm that tracks vaccine shipments,” the newspaper provided context about various companies:

About one million doses of Moderna’s vaccine have gone to countries that the World Bank classifies as low income. By contrast, 8.4 million Pfizer doses and about 25 million single-shot Johnson & Johnson doses have gone to those countries.

Of the handful of middle-income countries that have reached deals to buy Moderna’s shots, most have not yet received any doses, and at least three have had to pay more than the United States or European Union did, according to government officials in those countries…

Unlike Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, which have diverse rosters of drugs and other products, Moderna sells only the Covid vaccine. The Massachusetts company’s future hinges on the commercial success of its vaccine.

Afeyan, in his interview with the AP, pushed back, saying that Moderna supplied a “quite significant” output to poorer nations and is currently working with multiple governments “to help them secure supplies for the express purpose of supplying to low-income countries.”

Dr. Tom Frieden, a former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times Moderna is “behaving as if they have absolutely no responsibility beyond maximizing the return on investment.”

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  1. Eustachedesaintpierre

    The very obvious symptoms of the neoliberal variant. & it’s operational host of seemingly untouchables.

    1. Michaelmas

      Several points —

      [1] Noubar Afeyan is a product of growing up in refugee camps in the Middle East before he made it to MIT in America. He’d be a hard case — a monster, according to some who’ve worked for him — under any system, neoliberal or otherwise.This is not to excuse him.

      [2] Funnily enough, Afaneyan originally pounded his fist on the table and shouted, “I will not let Moderna be used as a vaccine,” when his partners first proposed it. It was originally being developed as a high-end, personalized medicine approach for ‘cancer vaccines.’ It was only the fact that he’d taken money from NIAID and that the US government made a billion-dollar market for Moderna that brought him around.

      [3] It’s a bad article. Moderna may only have one product right now, but it’s just one of 70-80 biotech companies Afeyan has controlling stakes in. It just happens to be the first to hit the big time publicly. He runs a biotech VC partnership called Flagship Pioneering —

      [4] Flagship is not Big Pharma. Calling Flagship a VC partnership doesn’t really describe it, either. With most VC companies, a founder scientist goes to the VCs with an idea. Flagship is more like a privatized biotech DARPA. It pulls the smartest bioengineers out of MIT and generates concepts based on where Afeyan and his partners think the science — stressing synthetic biology — will be in 10-20 years, then tests them — many ideas fail — and develops them and retains a controlling interest in them.

      [5] Afeyan is very good at understanding where the technology will be in 10-20 years. One goes in his offices and everywhere is piled many feet high with the latest scientific papers he’s plowing through. Moderna is arguably the most old-school thing Flagship has done, that I know of.

      [6] Again, it’s a bad article. As George Phillies points out below, it doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the mRNA sequence in Moderna’s vaccine and the lipid nanoparticle delivery technology, involving advanced microfluidics, which would have many patents involved. To be clear, the mRNA vaccine sequence is out there, publicly available. The lipid nanoparticle technology is not and that’s what Moderna and Afeyan are holding on to.

      [7] To be clear, again: even were Afeyan not a bit of a monster, he probably wouldn’t give the technology up and probably neither would you. It would be like Intel giving away proprietayr computer chip tech or SpaceX its proprietary rocket tech after a decade of development. In that light, Afeyan is probably telling the truth about Moderna being best-fitted to run expansion of its manufacturing.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        An excellent comment! There is much more at play than just “Waive the Patents”. Patents are supposed to be a disclosure — a disclosure sufficient that a person knowledgeable in the art could duplicate the patented technology. The patents involved in the Moderna vaccine and the other u.s. Corona vaccines are numerous and complex and Moderna does not own all those patents. Several months ago Nature Biotechnology sketched the network of patents involved: “A network analysis of COVID-19 mRNA vaccine patents” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41587-021-00912-9
        As I recall Lambert linked to this article.

        But as I believe your many points suggest the Moderna vaccine requires knowledge of numerous trade secrets in addition to the patent art required. There can be no simple “waive the patents” to enable other nations to produce these vaccines. I certainly “wouldn’t give the technology up” and I fully agree that “Moderna [is]being best-fitted to run expansion of its manufacturing.”

        However … I believe the u.s. Government funded much of the basic research, contributed generously to Moderna’s production processes, and made in kind contributions of inestimable value through guaranteeing a market for Moderna’s vaccine, waiving any liabilities resulting from the vaccine, and very kindly provided an EUA to move the vaccine from lab bench to profits in record time. Why are Moderna and the other u.s. vaccine makers finding such difficulty in ramping up vaccine production? That is what I wonder. The “Waive the Patents” nonsense is pure Kabuki.

        I am not enthusiastic about the mrna ‘miracle’ vaccines. I remain skeptical that the wizards of biotech really understand what they are doing well enough for the FDA to gut its approval procedures for these vaccines. There is other much older and better understood technology for producing vaccines. As far as I know the patents on those technologies have expired. As far as I know, many of the countries whining for mrna biotech. already have the knowhow and could practice the older much better understood technologies to produce Corona vaccines. Why are they not doing so? If the old tech is good enough to make the yearly flu-vaccines I cannot understand what prevents developing Corona flu vaccines using that approach. I would opt for an older-tech vaccine that went through some testing beyond the FDA’s hand-wave over the Moderna vaccine. Maybe these whining countries could gain marketshare for their vaccines in the u.s., even if it meant paying a few $ to get a vaccine I could better trust.

        1. Michaelmas

          Jeremy G: Why are Moderna and the other u.s. vaccine makers finding such difficulty in ramping up vaccine production?

          When I last poked around, the advanced technology that then manufactures the advanced microfluidics tech that in turn manufactures the lipid nanoparticles was itself in short supply, and was having to be scaled up as fast as possible.

          That was six months ago, though, so the situation maybe has evolved.

          I am not enthusiastic about the mrna ‘miracle’ vaccines. I remain skeptical that the wizards of biotech really understand what they are doing well enough for the FDA to gut its approval procedures for these vaccines.

          It’s not ideal, since Moderna only got the technology working in 2018-19, FFS! I’m more sanguine than you, but we don’t know what we don’t know.

          Had I been World King, I would have pushed for primary use of modified adenovirus vector vaccines like the Oxford-AZ and the Russian Sputnik V, because though novel we have a relatively better understanding of them than of the mRNA vaccines — the new malaria vaccine referred to in another NC post today is a modified adenovirus vaccine, I believe — and they’re far cheaper and easier to manufacture, transport and store.

          Politics and personalities have been primary factors in how all this has played out. Principally: –

          [1] Since Big Pharma has considered developing new ‘classical’ vaccines to be insufficiently profitable, Fauci and NIAID have been investing money and assistance in the mRNA technology and Moderna for most of the last decade (and there’s all the other promise of it). So Fauci is a big part of this in the US.

          [2] National politics, including Brexit-EU politics, has also played a big role.

          Sputnik V is Russian and the Russians, in my experience, are not biotech slouches. Unfortunately, they’re Russian.

          As for the Oxford-AZ, Macron in France was pushing Sanofi, a French Big Pharma, to be a chief supplier of a COVID19 vaccine, so he rubbished it even as Sanofi fell flat on its face. Meanwhile, the Johnson administration in the UK actually got things right (!?!), pulling out the stops and sparing no expense with Oxford-AZ, even as the EU in typical neoliberal manager-style quibbled about getting a lower price for three months on a vaccine they were already getting at cost, and then failed to pay attention to the specifics of what scaling up manufacture of a new vaccine might mean — what could go wrong — before they signed a contract as late as they could. When things did go wrong they got mad at Oxford-AZ.

          Simultaneously, Pfizer is a German-American Big Pharma and had bought an mRNA startup, BionTech. So the EU had an mRNA vaccine of its own it could champion.

          PS: If you think all this is depressing, you should take a look at the early history of heart transplant surgery during the 1960s, when nations and doctors competed against each other to feed dying human beings into a surgical butchery process from which those human beings would inevitably die because there was absolutely no way to handle the immunorejection problems then and they knew that. Nevertheless, there were big parades and celebrations about the latest heart transplants performed in the UK and South Africa.

          Just horrific. Nevertheless, we have workable heart transplants today (for which Dick Cheney, now on his third or fourth heart, is doubtless thankful). And someday fairly soon we will be able to grow new hearts via in vitro organogenesis.

          1. Jeremy Grimm

            “Big Pharma has considered developing new ‘classical’ vaccines to be insufficiently profitable …” True, but I thought those whining “waive the patents” at the WHO were foreign countries in Africa and South America wanting to get into the mrna act. Pharma in those other countries could be make classical vaccines. They face different cost structures and incentives.

            “…we don’t know what we don’t know.” Again true, but finding out by experimenting with the national population, seems very unwise.

            1. Michaelmas

              I thought those whining “waive the patents” at the WHO were foreign countries in Africa and South America wanting to get into the mrna act. Pharma in those other countries could be make classical vaccines.

              I suspect many of those crying ‘waive the patents’ for whatever reasons are PMC types in whatever country who simply hear the word ‘vaccine’ and don’t bother to think or investigate further. That was obviously the case with how the EU went about negotiating for the Oxford-AZ, for instance, wasting three months quibbling about price during an effin’ pandemic for a vaccine that they’d essentially be getting at cost anyway.

              In my experience, most PMC-ers are profoundly ignorant — and profoundly stupid — when it comes to understanding the specifics of critical infrastructures that underlie our technological civilization (some of that infrastructure having changed radically under the hood, as it were, during the last 40 years).

              The dominance of HBS graduates and lawyers in the US, particularly, is a big reason for the not-so-slow collapse of US society. Because all they know, really, is some variant of neoliberal ideology.

  2. TomDority

    Was there a law that limited profit a private company could make on research and developement that was publicly funded??? when was it repealed or legislated out and, by whom??
    Sorry, but can’t find that info

    1. JeffC

      I can’t think of a way to properly reply that wouldn’t seem mean. Sigh.

      Maybe I’ll just plant a very few seeds. The development of the internet was publicly funded. So was the development of rocketry. Much of the early development of integrated circuits came from the Apollo moon-landing program.

      It has always been thus. No law. Profiting off of taxpayer research is the American corporate dream and always has been.

  3. George Phillies

    “…will continue to not enforce patent infringement during the pandemic…”
    The article appears to contradict the headline, though there is an obscure point.

    The ‘recipe’ could be the MRNA sequence in the vaccine, which is hardly a secret, meaning that the MRNA can readily be duplicated. It could mean the delivery liposome, with many separate patent protections. Which was intended? If Moderna has waived patent protection, then the recipe — the mrna sequence — has been shared.

    From the stand point of preventing mutations that increase transmission or death rate, it does not matter who is vaccinated, because anyone can become the locus of a mutated virus. Complaints that the people being vaccinated are not in poor countries are medically irrelevant.Someone is being vaccinated.

    “- The United States has administered 401,819,240 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Saturday morning and distributed 487,277,035 doses, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.” That is, the US government and down the line are sitting on 85 million unadministered doses.

    “About one million doses of Moderna’s vaccine have gone to countries that the World Bank classifies as low income. By contrast, 8.4 million Pfizer doses and about 25 million single-shot Johnson & Johnson doses have gone to those countries.” That is, the Feds have far more unadministered doses — 85 million of them — than have been supplied to foreigners.

  4. AJB

    The “Greed Variant” is the real pandemic. The fools is government are also infected by a “Power” variant and possibly an “Over reach” variant too.

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