Covid patent fight is about greed, not human health

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: one of the companies that developed mRNA vaccines for Covid-19, Moderna, has just sued the companies who make the competing mRNA vaccine, Pfizer and BioNTech, claiming that Pfizer/BioNTech is violating its patents.

Pfizer was surprised though, according to news reports. (Or at least they said they were.)

Moderna had announced, back in 2020, that they wouldn’t enforce patents on their vaccine during the pandemic, but they seem to have changed their mind. Apparently, billions of dollars in profits isn’t enough: they’ve decided the time is right to try to grab even more money.

Let’s make no mistake here: this is purely about greed. Apparently Moderna understands this, since they proudly advertised their earlier plans not to enforce patents on the Covid-19 vaccine. They realized that the public good will generated from such an announcement was valuable.

Not that valuable, apparently.

It’s not even clear that Moderna should have been given the patents it holds. According to a recent story in Science, the key technology behind one of Moderna’s patents was invented, and patented, years earlier by two scientists, Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó, at the University of Pennsylvania. Their work discovered a way to modify the RNA in the vaccine that would make it much more effective. (Here’s a link to the patent.)

As I wrote last year, patenting the Covid-19 vaccine is unethical. At the time, the US had announced support for a “vaccine waiver” that would allow any country to develop vaccines against Covid-19 without licensing the technology from one of the companies that currently holds a patent. That policy sounded too good to be true–and apparently it was, because no such waiver is in effect now.

The patent system is a creation of modern governments, and they don’t have to let companies get away with this. The profits of a few companies are far, far less important than the lives of millions of people. Allowing companies to restrict Covid-19 vaccine development is, crudely put, defending money over human lives. Maybe it’s time for the international community to institute the vaccine waiver, at least until the pandemic is truly over. 

And make no mistake: even though we have vaccines now, they still need improving, and better vaccines will save lives. Patent disputes will slow down or even prevent work on better vaccines, since the patent holders will have a monopoly. Even the threat of a lawsuit can stymie progress; after all, why would someone invest time and effort on a vaccine that they might never be able to deploy?

Moderna is far from the first company or institution to let greed guide their actions: way back in 2010, I wrote about how MIT and Harvard had filed a patent that was, as I wrote at the time, both inappropriate and harmful. In that case, MIT and Harvard had an incredibly broad patent on a human gene, NF-kB, which plays a key role in our immune system’s response to infections. Granting a patent on NF-kB, as the US Patent Office did, was akin to granting a patent on all drugs that affect nearly any human gene. The universities licensed the patent to Ariad Pharmaceuticals, who filed a lawsuit the day the patent was granted. Neither Ariad nor MIT developed any treatments, but they initially won $65.2 million just because of the patent. (Need I point out that the Harvard and MIT work was mostly funded by the public?)

Fortunately, in the 2010 case, an appeals court threw out the patent, ruling that people and companies cannot patent human genes, because genes are products of nature, not inventions. The mRNA patents, though, don’t fall in this category.

Should I also mention that much of the basic research behind mRNA vaccines was also funded by the public? Or that NIH (and therefore the US government) has patent rights to some of the technology behind the Moderna vaccine?

Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech looked like heroes when they first announced their vaccine results–and in some ways, they were. The world was desperate for vaccines against Covid-19, and the mRNA vaccines have saved millions of lives.

But my message to Moderna is simpler: you’re already making billions in profits on the Covid-19 vaccine, so don’t be such greedy assholes. And don’t be evil: drop the lawsuit.

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