"Public funding delivers incredible medical advances and that should be a priority for all countries, but pharmaceutical companies cannot be trusted to share technology with the world."
Scientists Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for research that paved the way for the messenger RNA vaccines against Covid-19—critical work that, as campaigners quickly pointed out, benefited from substantial U.S. government funding.
Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni, policy co-lead for the People's Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement that "this award challenges the claim that it was solely big pharmaceutical companies who saved the world from Covid-19."
"Just like the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Karikó and Weissman's groundbreaking work on mRNA vaccines received a huge amount of public funding," said Kamal-Yanni. "Pharmaceutical companies have refused to share mRNA technologies with developers and researchers in developing countries."
The Nobel Prize committee credited Karikó and Weissman with fundamentally changing "our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system."
"The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times," the committee said.
As The Washington Postsummarized, the pair "discovered how to chemically tweak messenger RNA, turning basic biology into a technology ready to change the world when the pandemic struck. Their discovery is incorporated into the coronavirus vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, which have now been given billions of times."
But the Post and other major outlets covering Karikó and Weissman's Nobel prize-winning contributions did not emphasize—or even mention—that some of the scientists' work was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Karikó and Weissman patented their findings in 2006 and later licensed the patents to Moderna and BioNTech, Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine partner.
According to an analysis by Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), Weissman "appears as the principal investigator on a total of 42 projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1998 and 2020, representing $18,323,060 in costs."
"Karikó was the principal investigator of four projects funded by the NIH between 2007 and 2011, totaling $1,234,462 in costs," KEI observed. "In other words, the United States government funded and has certain rights over at least some of the foundational Karikó and Weissman patents directed to mRNA discoveries."
"As governments discuss how to prepare for the next pandemic, they should learn from the story of mRNA."
Throughout the pandemic and into the present, vaccine makers such as Pfizer and Moderna have opposed global calls to share their vaccine recipes and technology with the world, fiercely clinging to their monopoly control over production and using that control to force governments into one-sided contracts favorable to the pharmaceutical industry—even though their vaccines were developed with massive public support.
study published in The BMJ earlier this year estimated that the U.S. government pumped nearly $32 billion into the development, production, and purchase of mRNA coronavirus vaccines.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has declined to use its ownership of key patents or the leverage provided by public funding to force pharmaceutical companies to do everything they can to ensure the equitable distribution of lifesaving vaccine technology.
Kamal-Yanni of the People's Vaccine Alliance said Monday that "fortunately, Weissman is helping a WHO-backed mRNA program which aims to develop mRNA technology in lower-income countries, even while pharmaceutical companies refuse to share their know-how."
"As governments discuss how to prepare for the next pandemic, they should learn from the story of mRNA," said Kamal-Yanni. "Public funding delivers incredible medical advances and that should be a priority for all countries, but pharmaceutical companies cannot be trusted to share technology with the world."
Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines program at Public Citizen, echoed that message, saying in a statement that "today's Nobel must ring as a call for equity and health justice, and a call to change a massively unjust pharmaceutical industry."
"Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech still largely control the available vaccines and in some countries have significantly increased their price, despite the billions in public funding on which the vaccines rely," said Maybarduk. "By supporting initiatives to share science and technology, and by funding vaccine infrastructure, governments can help blunt the effects of disease, and bring a coda of justice to a terribly unjust time."
This story has been updated to include a statement from Public Citizen.