After its own vaccine flop, CureVac sues Pfizer partner BioNTech for patent infringement

A year after a high-profile flop with its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, CureVac is still trying to get a piece of the action.

On Monday, the company revealed that it is suing fellow German mRNA pioneer BioNTech for infringement of its intellectual property by developing the Pfizer-partnered COVID shot Comirnaty.

CureVac said it has no intention of disrupting the production, sale or distribution of BioNTech's megablockbuster vaccine with an injunction. Instead, the Tubingen-based company wants recognition and compensation for the technology it developed—beginning with work more than two decades ago—which it says was essential in BioNTech’s creation of its successful shot.

"There’s a piece of IP which we think has been used. That’s OK. We’re not against using it, especially in a pandemic," CureVac CEO Franz-Werner Haas said in an interview. "We just want to have this piece of contribution to be recognized."

The lawsuit, filed in German regional court in Dusseldorf, where BioNTech is based, identifies four patents which relate to the engineering of mRNA molecules, including “sequence modifications to increase stability and enhance protein expression, as well as mRNA vaccine formulations specific to SARS CoV-2 vaccines,” CureVac said in a release.

In response, BioNTech says it is "looking at all legal options," a company spokesman told Reuters on Wednesday.

The company also posted a statement on its website.

"BioNTech's work is original, and we will vigorously defend it against all allegations of patent infringement," the company wrote. "However, we are aware that it is not unusual that other companies in the pharmaceutical industry, having witnessed the success of Comirnaty, are now suggesting that the vaccine potentially infringes their intellectual property rights."

When asked if CureVac may have a claim against Moderna and its mRNA vaccine, Haas refused comment.

This is not the first time BionTech has been sued for patent infringement in its development of Comirnaty. In October of 2020, San Diego-based Allele Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals took on the company and Pfizer for allegedly using its mNeonGreen fluorescent protein to test their vaccine.

Allele also sued Regeneron for infringement in that company’s development of its COVID-19 antibodies. Pfizer and BioNTech resolved the case in January of this year. The suit with Regeneron remains ongoing.

Then in March 2022, Alnylam of Massachusetts sued both Pfizer and Moderna, claiming that more than a decade ago it invented the delivery technology employed by both in their respective COVID-19 shots.

That claim came three weeks after two companies—Arbutus Biopharma of Vancouver and Genevant Sciences of Cambridge, Mass.—filed suit against Moderna, also for allegedly using the lipid nanoparticle delivery technology they pioneered a decade ago.

CureVac's own COVID-19 vaccine candidate was considered so promising that it gained support from big pharma partner Bayer, who helped facilitate a deal with the European Union to supply 405 million doses. But a late-stage trial showed CVnC had only 47% efficacy. 

More recently, CureVac and GSK have been working on a second-generation COVID-19 vaccine dubbed CV2CoV.

Editor's Note: The comments of CureVac CEO Franz-Werner Haas were added after initial publication of the story.