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NIH Scientist Who Developed Key Vaccine Technology Says Patent Gives US Leverage Over Big Pharma

Dr. Barney Graham says he joined the National Institutes of Health in order to leverage "public funding to solve public health issues."

U.S. President Joe Biden, flanked on the left by Dr. Barney S. Graham, tours the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on February 11, 2021. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

A leading National Institutes of Health scientist who helped develop a key technology used in Pfizer and Moderna's coronavirus vaccines said this week that the U.S. government's ownership of the patent for the invention gives the Biden administration significant leverage to compel pharmaceutical companies to help boost global production.

Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the NIH's Vaccine Research Center, told the Financial Times in an interview this week that "virtually everything that comes out of the government's research labs is a non-exclusive licensing agreement so that it doesn't get blocked by any particular company."

"Virtually everything that comes out of the government's research labs is a non-exclusive licensing agreement so that it doesn't get blocked by any particular company."
—Dr. Barney Graham, National Institutes of Health

Part of the team of scientists that in 2016 conceived the spike-protein technology being utilized in the highly effective mRNA vaccines, Graham told FT that "one of the reasons" he joined NIH was "to be able to use the leverage of the public funding to solve public health issues."

While Pfizer's partner BioNTech has licensed the technology from the U.S. government and is paying royalties, Moderna has not—and the Biden administration has not attempted to enforce the patent.

According to researchers at New York University School of Law, Moderna—whose vaccine was developed with a massive infusion of public funding—could be on the hook for more than a billion dollars in compensation should the U.S. decide to sue the pharmaceutical giant, which has thus far sold most of its doses to rich countries.

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But the researchers argue in a new report (pdf) that instead of taking Moderna to court for patent infringement, the U.S. government should "use the threat of litigation of the '070 patent to bring Moderna back to the negotiation table and convince Moderna to share its own patents, trade secrets, and other intellectual property on [its vaccine] with the U.S. government and with vaccine manufacturers around the world."

Going that route, the researchers say, would help "accelerate scale-up of global mRNA vaccine manufacturing, vaccinate the world, and bring the Covid-19 pandemic to a conclusive end."

As Graham put it in his interview with FT, "It's really up to... the political will and the use of public dollars to ask: are we going to use our technologies to solve these problems, and to solve them with global coordination, and with the recognition that we are all in this together?"

Pressure on the Biden administration to use U.S. ownership of the so-called '070 patent to pressure Moderna into sharing its technical know-how comes amid a much broader fight at the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive coronavirus-related patent protections, a move advocates say is necessary to ramp up vaccine production and ensure access in developing nations.

"These vaccines were funded by public money and are desperately needed worldwide if we are to end this pandemic," Heidi Chow, senior campaigns and policy manager at advocacy group Global Justice Now, said earlier this week. "It's morally bankrupt for rich country leaders to allow a small group of corporations to keep the vaccine technology and know-how under lock and key while selling their limited doses to the highest bidder."

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