March 24, 2023

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: One of the companies developing an mRNA vaccine for Covid-19, Moderna, just sued these companies Who made the competing mRNA vaccine, Pfizer
and BioNTech, claiming that Pfizer/BioNTech infringed its patents.

Pfizer was surprised, According to news reports. (Or at least they say they are.)

Moderna announced back in 2020, They don’t enforce patents Their vaccine during the pandemic, but they seem to have changed their minds. Obviously, billions of dollars in profit Not enough: They think it’s time to try and grab more money.

Let’s make no mistake here: this is purely about greed. Apparently Moderna understands this, as they proudly touted their earlier plan to not patent a Covid-19 vaccine. They realize that there is value in the public interest that such announcements generate.

Obviously not that valuable.

It’s not even clear whether Moderna should get the patents it owns. According to a recent story science, The key technology behind one of Moderna’s patents was invented and patented several years ago by two University of Pennsylvania scientists, Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó. Their work uncovered a way to modify the RNA in vaccines to make them more effective. (Here is the link to the patent.)

As I wrote last year, patenting a Covid-19 vaccine is unethical. At the time, the U.S. announced its support for a “vaccine exemption,” allowing any country to develop a vaccine against Covid-19 without licensing the technology from one of the companies that currently holds the patents. The policy sounds too good to be true — and apparently it is, since no such exemption is in effect right now.

The patent system is a product of modern governments, and they don’t have to let companies get away with it. The profits of a few companies are far less important than the lives of millions. Roughly speaking, allowing companies to limit the development of a Covid-19 vaccine is defending money, not human life. Perhaps now is the time for the international community to enact vaccine exemptions, at least until the pandemic is truly over.

And make no mistake: even if we have vaccines now, they still need improvement, and better vaccines will save lives. Patent disputes will slow or even prevent research on better vaccines because patent holders will have monopoly positions. Even the threat of lawsuits can hinder progress; after all, why would anyone invest time and effort in a vaccine they may never be able to deploy?

Moderna is far from the first company or institution to use patent fights to suppress competition: Back in 2010, I wrote about how MIT and Harvard filed patents, as I wrote at the time, both inappropriate and harmful. In this case, MIT and Harvard have extremely broad patents on the human gene NF-kB, which plays a key role in our immune system’s response to infection. Granting a patent on NF-kB, as the US Patent Office does, is similar to granting a patent on almost any drug that affects any human gene. The universities licensed the patents to Ariad Pharmaceuticals, which sued on the date the patents were granted. Neither Ariad nor MIT have developed any treatments, but They initially won $65.2 million Just because of patents. (Need me point out that most of the work at Harvard and MIT is publicly funded?)

Fortunately, in the 2010 case, an appeals court rejected the patent, ruling that individuals and companies cannot patent human genes because genes are natural products, not inventions. However, mRNA patents do not fall into this category.

Should I also mention that much of the basic research behind mRNA vaccines is also publicly funded?or that NIH (and therefore the U.S. government) owns the patent rights Know some of the technology behind Moderna’s vaccine?

Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech looked like heroes when they first announced their vaccine results—and in some ways, they were. The world desperately needs a vaccine against Covid-19, and mRNA vaccines have already saved millions of lives.

But my message to Moderna is simpler: drop the lawsuit. You’ve already made billions in profits from Covid-19 vaccines: is that not enough? Don’t be driven by greed.

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