Pharmaceutical patent disputes were rarely mainstream matters before the coronavirus, but the current fight between Moderna and the National Institutes of Health over their weirdly named Spikevax shot is a title bout with major implications regarding how the vaccine could be distributed worldwide.
While last year the government was calling the shot the “NIH-Moderna COVID-19 vaccine,” the biotech giant filed a patent made public this week in which it found that “only Moderna’s scientists” designed the vaccine. The patent, filed in July, is specific to the genetic sequence creating spike proteins, which allow vaccine recipients to build antibodies to block the virus when the body is actually exposed. As the New York Times reports, the NIH was surprised by the attempt at a solo effort. If the two parties cannot figure out a way to split the credit, the government will have to determine if it will take the expensive step of going to court. Already, the U.S. has paid $10 billion in taxpayer funds for Moderna to help create the vaccine, test its efficacy, and provide shots for the federal government. The Biden and Trump administrations also purchased $35 billion worth of vaccines to be produced through the end of next year.
The ownership of the patent also carries serious ramifications for the distribution of shots amid a pandemic in which G20 members still have 15 times more vaccine access than sub-Saharan nations. “Patents are development monopolies, and in a pandemic it is a terrible idea to have a private corporation have a monopoly on part of a lifesaving technology,” drug-policy expert Zain Rizvi told the Times. And while Moderna has promised not to enforce its COVID patents during the pandemic, if the NIH were deemed co-inventors of the vaccine, that would allow the government to maintain more direct involvement in the production of the vaccine even when the pandemic subsides. However, the U.S. government has not been a white-hat actor in all of this: The Biden administration is still facing calls, including one last month from Doctors Without Borders, to end vaccine hoarding. One estimate cited by the group suggests that 1 million lives could be saved worldwide by mid-2022 if the U.S. and other wealthy nations were to distribute excess stockpile abroad.