Janine Jackson: Front-page November 10 New York Times told us, “Moderna Moves for Total Credit in Vaccine Patent; Won’t Share With US.” It’s an odd thing to read, but corporate news media often present readers with linguistic juxtapositions that accurately, if unwittingly, reflect deep questions about US society.
In this case, it’s the fact that a private company is seeking to deny the involvement of the NIH in inventing the main component of its Covid-19 vaccine, with, as the paper notes, “broad implications for the vaccine’s long-term distribution and billions of dollars in future profits.”
It’s nice that the vaccine’s lifesaving capacity comes first in the phrase, before the billions to be made. But is this the priority of the entire process?
Joining us now by phone is Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program. Welcome back CounterSpin, Peter Maybarduk.
Peter Maybarduk: It’s great to be back.
JJ. What is Moderna claiming it did? And how does this relate to your understanding about the invention of the vaccine?
PM: Moderna claims that it designed the sequence for the NIH/Moderna vaccination, which we may refer to as the vaccine itself. Moderna said that Moderna added a sequence to the National Institutes of Health’s process. It is a technical dispute over, essentially, authorship.
Now, what’s not in dispute is that the National Institutes of Health and Moderna have been partners in this process for several years. And it’s important but often overlooked: The National Institutes of Health are the world’s leading funder of biomedical research, with about $40 billion taxpayer dollars invested every year in products that are eventually sold, largely under monopoly conditions, by the pharmaceutical industry.
In this case, federal scientists were the ones who pioneered research into coronaviruses well before Covid-19. We all remember that we had MERS (SARS) and MERS (MERS), and were aware there was a coronavirus danger. The federal government was responsible for much of this research, as well as helping to pioneer various vaccine platforms, including MRNA. This has been so successful.
So in this case, we have a dispute over who is the inventor of the core patent at the heart of the world’s most effective Covid-19 vaccine. And NIH and Moderna just don’t agree. We are beginning to hear rumblings coming from NIH suggesting that they might take this to the next level and seek a resolution. We understand that the US government has been battling the company over this for over a decade.
JJ: What’s the meaningful impact? What would it prevent the US government from doing? What would it allow Moderna?
PM: If the US government is co-inventor, they have more formal power and informal leverage. They can insist on certain uses of vaccines, license the technology worldwide to more manufacturers, or help scale production. Or, and to your initial point, to insist on royalty payments to the government in exchange for Moderna’s use of some of this publicly funded technology.
Truth is, the NIH as well as the US government have more powers than those contained in this patent. We believe in this belief and have it. said all along The US government, under its contract to Moderna or under the Defense Production Act The Bayh/Dole Act, and other powers under existing law, has the power to share key vaccine information, license other producers, perhaps simply share the entire NIH/ Moderna vaccine recipe with the World Health Organization, to see production scaled up and this key invention made available to all the world’s people, who so desperately need it.
But there’s no doubt that, in reputational terms, in terms of the story that is told, potentially in terms of dollars, the issue of who really invented the vaccine just has great salience and implications for what kinds of decisions the government makes about that power that we believe it has.
JJ: You were back in April said:
One of the greatest public health private/profit tensions in this story is the value of “vaccine recipes” and vaccine technology. A company like Moderna isn’t thinking only about the value of its MRNA vaccine–which is actually [you noted]is actually an NIH vaccine, a publicly-developed vaccine. This was done in partnership by Moderna and paid for by taxpayers over many decades. But they’re thinking about the value of future products.
Which is just my way of saying, I don’t imagine that this twist in the story comes as a complete surprise to you.
PM: That’s right. We’ve been tracking it for some time, and of course the US government and Moderna have been fighting about it for some time.
As you know, the pandemic has already claimed the lives of over 10 million people around the world. There have not been enough vaccines. This is a major problem. And NIH/Moderna is the people’s vaccine, or should be the people’s vaccine–publicly funded, publicly pioneered, public science leading the way, and even running the clinical trials. Taxpayers paid for 99% of this vaccine’s development.
But Moderna is trying to turn this people’s vaccine into a rich people’s vaccine. It was only available to wealthy countries. Very few doses were going to the rest of the world. COVAX or to the global relief effort, and that the technology is not being shared with World Health Organization or other organizations that could build upon it.
So that’s what’s at stake, and from the beginning of the pandemic, unfortunately, the US government’s position has been to be extremely deferential to corporate interests, rather than noting the scale of the crisis, and noting the government’s own involvement, and saying, you know what? We are co-owners and will make this vaccine available to the rest of the world because the crisis requires it.
Our position has always been that the US government can compensate Moderna’s investment and scientific engagements. However, we believe that it is not possible for humanity to afford for such an important medical tool corporate confidentiality and a limited rollout of its use at this time.
JJ: I think this is a second point to the question. I do believe that for most people, protection from a fatal disease is not seen as like having a fancy car, you know: if you can’t afford it, you just go without it. This brings us back to the fundamental question of private resourcing public health.
And the news coverage on this latest twist has had a sort of subtheme of, this is so sad because the private/public partnership on vaccines was like the holy grail, and now it’s getting kind of messed up. The New York Times called it “one of the few bright spots of the pandemic.” And I get that. But I also hear, God forbid, the state do something in the public interests on its own. Because that would mean government worked, and we can’t have that.
And so the problem is being defined, for those who think there’s a problem, as Moderna might get these billions, but if the US got some of these billions, it would go to the Treasury. The vision that is being evoked is drugs. Lifesaving medicines are a pot, and private companies as well as governments are fighting for it. I find that this whole vision is a way to resource public healthcare.
PM: Certainly more important is the government’s responsibility for stewarding the technology that it is helping develop, for one. But also, even if the government hadn’t developed this technology, simply recognizing the role of the world’s most powerful government in a time of global crisis–if it were war, we would treat the technology differently. We would not allow any company’s particular rights or investments to prevent us from developing the best defense technologies. So it should be in health. But we aren’t there yet, politically, and it’s a corner that we desperately need to turn, because so many people, of course, are dying in this case.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Peter Maybarduk. He’s director of the Global Access to Medicines ProgramPublic Citizen. They can be found online at citizen.org. Peter Maybarduk – Thank you so much to join us this week CounterSpin.
PM: We are grateful.