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Woman holds sign reading, "people's vaccine not profit vaccine"

Advocates for a people's vaccine protest to make the science behind Covid-19 vaccines available to all on May 11, 2021 in Macclesfield, United Kingdom. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Moderna Slammed for 'Grotesque' Lawsuit Against Pfizer Over Covid-19 Vaccine Patents

"If anyone should be suing big pharma," said one campaigner, "it's the millions who have needlessly lost loved ones to Covid-19 while Moderna and Pfizer sold doses to the highest bidder."

Julia Conley

Public health experts and advocates alike on Friday condemned pharmaceutical company Moderna for its lawsuit against Pfizer over over Covid-19 vaccine technology patents, saying that if anyone should be suing it's the poor people of the world who have been refused access to the shots by the greed of both companies. 

The two companies released some of the most effective vaccines against the disease in late 2020, using Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology that Moderna says it developed in trials in 2015.

"If Moderna is willing to sue another U.S. pharmaceutical giant with deep pockets, then governments must step in to protect vaccine efforts in lower-income countries from cases like this."

But as campaigners with the U.K.-based Global Justice Now pointed out, the technology used by both companies was developed with government funding, and should not be subject to patents during an ongoing public health crisis.

"It's grotesque but unsurprising to see pharma fighting among themselves over who has the right to profiteer the most from the pandemic," said Tim Bierley, pharma campaigner for Global Justice Now. "If we want to talk about who gets the credit for the vaccines we have, the facts show that U.S. taxpayer money has for years funded mRNA vaccine development, and the technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines. By rights, these should be the people's vaccines."

Moderna used nearly $10 billion in public money to develop its vaccine.

Groups including Global Justice Now and the People's Vaccine Alliance have long called on the World Trade Organization to lift patent protections for all Covid-19 vaccines and treatments for the duration of the pandemic so countries in the Global South can use the technology developed in the U.S. to create generic versions of the products—a move that the governments of wealthy western nations and vaccine makers all fought against.

"Pfizer and Moderna applied enormous pressure to stop governments from waiving intellectual property rules on Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments," said Maaza Seyoum, global south convenor of the People's Vaccine Alliance. "What they wanted was to ensure extraordinary profits and stop low and middle-income countries from making vaccines. But the painful irony is that the companies are now embroiled in a bitter intellectual property dispute with each other." 

"If Moderna is willing to sue another U.S. pharmaceutical giant with deep pockets, then governments must step in to protect vaccine efforts in lower-income countries from cases like this," she said.

In 2021, as the Delta and Omicron variants caused outbreaks around the world, Moderna shipped a greater share of vaccine doses to wealthy countries than any other pharmaceutical company.

Moderna and Pfizer have projected combined profits of more than $50 billion in 2022 from their vaccines.

Georgetown University public health law professor Lawrence Gostin said Moderna's lawsuit is "bad for public health," even though the company is not seeking to remove Pfizer's vaccine from circulation during the pandemic.

"The suit would push mRNA vaccines into a near monopoly and stifle innovation," Gostin said. "The public loses. Both companies should waive IP and transfer technology."

"If anyone should be suing big pharma," said Seyoum, "it's the millions who have needlessly lost loved ones to Covid-19 while Moderna and Pfizer sold doses to the highest bidder."

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