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People stand near the gate of a vaccination center with a notice saying "vaccine is over, closed for the day" in Mumbai. (Photo: Ashish Vaishnav/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

People stand near the gate of a vaccination center with a notice saying "vaccine is over, closed for the day" in Mumbai. (Photo: Ashish Vaishnav/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As Moderna Refuses, Democrats Push Biden to Share Vaccine Recipe With the World

The Biden administration may have the "legal authority to access and share the ingredient list and manufacturing instructions for Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine," lawmakers write in a new letter.

Jake Johnson

A dozen congressional Democrats on Wednesday urged the Biden administration to do everything in its power to force Moderna to share its coronavirus vaccine with poor nations, including potentially using the government's authority under a federal contract to unilaterally release the pharmaceutical giant's manufacturing process.

"The federal government must use all its tools, including legal action, to get them to transfer this urgently needed technology."

Noting in a letter that Moderna has "disproportionately benefited" from federal funding throughout the process of developing its mRNA vaccine, the lawmakers slammed the company's recent dismissal of "calls to share its technology, including from the U.S. government."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led the new letter along with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The letter comes as Moderna is under growing scrutiny for profitably selling most of its vaccine supply to rich nations while refusing to work with the international community to ensure that shots reach poor countries.

"Given the urgent need to ramp up global vaccine production, we appreciate the Biden-Harris administration's leadership in pushing for a waiver of international intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines," the congressional Democrats wrote. "However, we are concerned that an agreement on a waiver has not been reached, and we urge the administration to use all its resources to press the remaining opposing countries to reach an agreement. At the same time, the administration has other tools to increase global vaccine production that it can and should use."

The lawmakers point specifically to a federal contract Moderna entered last year with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an agreement that "may give the federal government legal authority to access and share the ingredient list and manufacturing instructions for Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine."

"The contract grants BARDA 'unlimited rights to data funded under this contract pursuant to [the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)] Clause 52.227-14," the Democrats note. "Under FAR, data is defined to include 'recorded information, regardless of form or the media on which it may be recorded,' as well as 'technical data'—a broad definition that appears to include all key information needed to produce the vaccine."

As Moderna has faced backlash from humanitarian groups, lawmakers, and even late-night TV hosts for denying its government-funded vaccine to poor countries, the Biden administration in recent weeks has belatedly started pressuring the Massachusetts-based company to participate in tech transfer initiatives and other efforts to close the massive inoculation gap. According to new figures from Our World in Data, 69 countries—including 44 African nations—are currently not on track to provide at least one coronavirus vaccine dose to 40% of their populations by the end of the year.

"We expect that Moderna will step up as a company," David Kessler, the Biden administration's chief science officer for the coronavirus pandemic response, said during a panel discussion Wednesday. "Failure to do that would be unconscionable, in my view."

"Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine is a lifesaver. Sharing the recipe so that it's mass-produced to save lives is the right thing to do."

"These companies understand our authorities and understand we would not be afraid to use them," he added. "The United States government has played a very substantial role in making Moderna the company it is."

Kessler is one of the administration officials to whom congressional Democrats addressed their letter, which was sent days after the New York Times reported that Moderna "has been supplying its shots almost exclusively to wealthy nations, keeping poorer countries waiting and earning billions in profit."

Moderna's vaccine sales helped make two of its co-founders billionaires and propelled them to the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the United States.

"The Biden administration has grown increasingly frustrated with Moderna for not making its vaccine more available to poorer countries," according to the Times. "The administration has been pressing Moderna executives to increase production at U.S. plants and to license the company's technology to overseas manufacturers that could make doses for foreign markets."

In their letter on Wednesday, the group of congressional Democrats warned that Moderna's goal of producing "between 800 million and one billion doses of its Covid-19 vaccine in 2021" would "still fall far short of the 11 billion doses experts estimate are needed to vaccinate 70% of the world's population."

"To reach these targets as quickly as possible, it will be necessary to dramatically expand global vaccine manufacturing, and manufacturers around the world, including in South Korea and South Africa, stand ready to help," the lawmakers wrote. "But without cooperation from Moderna, these facilities will be forced to spend precious time trying to replicate existing mRNA technology."

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, said it's "good news" that Democratic lawmakers are vocally pushing the Biden administration and Moderna to help end vaccine apartheid.

"Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine is a lifesaver," Byanyima said. "Sharing the recipe so that it's mass-produced to save lives is the right thing to do. When all countries vaccinate their people, the global economy will reopen, jobs will return. We all win."

Writing for the Washington Post earlier this week, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden argued that "the only responsible way" to manufacture enough vaccine doses to meet global needs is for Moderna and Pfizer to "transfer their vaccine technology to other companies that can rapidly increase production."

"Moderna claims it will take 12 to 18 months to transfer its technology. This is false. It took about six months to get the Lonza facilities producing vaccines and should take less time now," Frieden wrote. "Taxpayers supported these vaccines at almost every step of development. Taxpayer money also bought and distributed millions of doses. In exchange, the public has every right to expect companies to behave responsibly. Since they haven't, the federal government must use all its tools, including legal action, to get them to transfer this urgently needed technology."

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