On Tuesday the New York Times dropped a bomb threat about patents surrounding Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine. After a four-year partnership with the US National Institutes of Health, Moderna patented perhaps the most critical part of its vaccine, and it did so only with the names of its own scientists. Much to the dismay of the NIH, all of its scientists were barred from the patent application, which could have dire consequences. If the government agency was involved in the application, the US would theoretically be able to license the technology, which would help bring it out faster and more widely, including in more developing countries where vaccination rates remain low. If the patent is approved as written, Moderna would gain full control of this technology — and potentially tens of billions more in profit. Many in the scientific community view Moderna’s move as a betrayal.
Today at RE:WIRED, our own senior writer Maryn McKenna sat down with Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, along with Nahid Bhadelia, an internationally acclaimed infectious disease physician. Bhadelia is the founding director of Boston University’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research, as well as the associate director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, a BU maximum containment research facility.
Bancel said he couldn’t say much about the specific patent case because it’s an open legal matter, but noted that simply making the prescription available wouldn’t immediately lead to enough vaccines. “There are no factories around the world waiting to make this product,” Bancel said, “because these factories don’t exist. It’s a brand new type of product.”
On why Moderna still keeps a close eye on earnings, he said, “If you think about it, it takes a lot of investment to get innovations to bring products.” While Moderna received billions of dollars from the US government to fund its research as part of Operation Warp Speed, Bancel said there was less money available when it came to actually building the manufacturing capabilities for its new vaccine. When governments and foundations proved unwilling to invest, the company had to go to the capital markets to raise about $5 billion. He argues that to motivate people to invest that kind of money, they typically have to believe that their investment will pay for itself.
For her part, Bhadelia doesn’t think it’s an either/or situation. She thinks it’s about finding the balance to ensure the companies get the profits so they can continue their research, while also answering the call of global health needs during a pandemic that is killing at least 5 million people. has cost. Vaccine equality is a critical component. “There are still parts of the world where only 5 percent of the population has been vaccinated,” she said, while in the US people are getting the second or third dose and have started vaccinating children before the holidays.
Part of the solution will be to make life-saving vaccines more affordable worldwide. For poor countries, up to 70 percent of their health care budget is spent on vaccinations. In the US it is traditionally less than 1 percent. Bhadelia recognizes that there are many other barriers to getting the vaccines where they are needed, but delivery is still one of them.