A South African researcher works in a vaccine lab

A reseacher works in Afrigen's microbiology lab in Cape Town, South Africa on October 5, 2021. (Photo: Kristin Palitza/picture alliance via Getty Images)

African Civil Society Slams Moderna Attempt to 'Derail' Vaccine Project

"It's an outrageous act of gaslighting and we won't stand for it," said one public health campaigner.

A coalition of civil society groups on Monday accused Moderna of trying to use patent protections to "derail" South African scientists' nascent attempt to produce an mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine of their own, without the support of the pharmaceutical industry or rich countries.

In an open letter led by African organizations--including the African Alliance and the Health Justice Initiative--the coalition notes that "several patents... have been filed by Moderna and granted in South Africa, without the requisite due examination."

"The company could turn around and enforce patents while Covid-19 is still endemic in Africa."

"It is important to state that these patents pose long-term barriers to scaling up the supply of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines and to diversifying local production in the continent," the organizations wrote in the new letter, which was addressed to Moderna's billionaire CEO Stephane Bancel and co-founder Noubar Afeyan.

Because South African researchers and their World Health Organization (WHO) partners are using Moderna's publicly funded vaccine as a template for the potential new shot, advocates fear the patents could leave those involved in the effort vulnerable to legal retribution and threaten the initiative's funding.

According to a Doctors Without Borders analysis published last month, "At least three mRNA vaccine patents have been granted in South Africa" to Moderna, which has raked in huge profits from its coronavirus vaccine--the company's only product on the market.

"These patents will only start expiring in 2034," Doctors Without Borders noted. "These include one patent with very broad claims covering the method of production of an mRNA vaccine, one with claims on the gene sequences relevant to mRNA vaccine, and one containing broad claims on the method of delivering biological moieties into cells that is useful for production. Notably, several equivalent patents in other countries have been withdrawn or abandoned by Moderna or rejected by national patent offices including in Australia, Canada, China, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, and South Korea."

While Moderna has vowed not to enforce coronavirus-related patents for the duration of the pandemic, the civil society groups warned Monday that "Moderna itself may decide when the pandemic is 'over.'" Bancel said in September that he thinks the pandemic could end by the final months of 2022.

"Even under Moderna's pledge not to enforce patents during the pandemic, the company could turn around and enforce patents while Covid-19 is still endemic in Africa," Tian Johnson, founder of the African Alliance, said in a statement Monday. "That would effectively derail all of the work that the WHO and African scientists have put into building vaccine manufacturing capacity on the continent. The damage that would cause extends beyond the fight against Covid, preventing Africa from preparing for the next pandemic."

The civil society coalition called on Moderna to "desist from continuously putting Africa last in line" and commit to:

  • Withdrawing and abandoning all patents and patent applications in South Africa related to the Moderna Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology;
  • Immediately lending technical assistance to the [WHO-backed South Africa vaccine] hub in order to guarantee its success within an expedited period; and
  • Allowing the hub, the freedom to continue its vital work now, which will help to potentially develop vaccines against other high burden diseases in Africa, such as tuberculosis (TB), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and Malaria.

"History will remember which side Moderna stood on in this pandemic," the groups wrote, "and there is still time to stand on the side of saving lives."

"History will remember which side Moderna stood on in this pandemic."

Two years into the global pandemic, just 11% of the roughly 1.3 billion people on the African continent have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Poor nations in Africa, and elsewhere across the globe, have been forced to rely on vaccine donations as rich countries and pharmaceutical companies hoard doses and key technology.

Late last year, after Moderna and other vaccine makers refused to participate in the WHO's technology transfer effort, South African scientists began the process of making their own mRNA shot using publicly available information about Moderna's vaccine.

According to documents published last week by The BMJ, a British medical journal, the pharmaceutical industry was quick to push back on the replication effort.

"Provided that the release from patent cover will be granted by Moderna only during the pandemic, the sustainability outlook for this project of the WHO Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub is not favorable," the kENUP Foundation, a consultancy firm hired by the German firm BioNTech, wrote in a 20-page document to South African government officials in August.

"The WHO Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub's project of copying the manufacturing process of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine should be terminated immediately," the foundation wrote.

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South Africa is one of the lead sponsors of a World Trade Organization proposal to waive international patent protections for the duration of the public health emergency--an idea that the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied against and that major rich countries have blocked.

Fatima Hassan, founder and director of the South Africa-based Health Justice Initiative, stressed in a statement Monday that "Moderna said it would not enforce patents on this Covid-19 vaccine during the pandemic--and that pledge has repeatedly been cited as evidence that intellectual property is not a barrier to vaccine access."

"Yet now that we are finally beginning to make mRNA vaccines in Africa, Moderna could unilaterally decide that Covid-19 is now endemic and use intellectual property rules to stifle production," said Hassan. "It's an outrageous act of gaslighting and we won't stand for it."

Correction: The kENUP Foundation was hired by BioNTech, not Moderna.

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