Moderna won't enforce COVID-19 vaccine patents during pandemic

Moderna, a biotech advancing one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates, has faced questions for several months over its patents and intellectual property. Responding to investor questions, the company now says it won't enforce its vaccine patents against other companies during the pandemic.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, company President Stephen Hoge said Moderna is “quite studiously not asserting infringement.” Without naming names, the biotech says other COVID-19 vaccines in development might be using Moderna-patented technology. 

“We’re not interested in using that IP to decrease the number of vaccines available in a pandemic,” Hoge told the WSJ. Further, the company is open to licensing its technology after the pandemic. Moderna made the pledge in response to investor questions around its patents, Hoge told the newspaper.

Moderna says it has spent billions of dollars on mRNA research over the years, but its patents have come under scrutiny on several occasions during the pandemic. Over the summer, the company lost an attempt to invalidate a patent held by Arbutus Biopharma, prompting analysts to wonder how the decision might affect Moderna's COVID-19 work. At the time, a patent lawyer told Reuters the decision increased the pressure on Moderna to seek a sublicense on technology covered by the patent.  

Still, it isn’t completely clear whether Moderna’s potential launch would be affected by Arbutus’ patent.

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Moderna has a “broad [intellectual property] portfolio covering our development and commercialization of mRNA vaccine and therapeutic programs,” the company said in its latest quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But there are risks.

Messenger RNA is a new field, and various patent applications are being processed around the world. There’s “uncertainty about which patents will issue, and, if they do, as to when, to whom, and with what claims,” the company noted in the filing. It’s “possible that one or more organizations will hold patent rights to which we may need a license, or hold patent rights which could be asserted against us," Moderna added.

Pfizer and BioNTech are advancing the other lead mRNA vaccine candidate, but a Pfizer spokeswoman told the WSJ that BioNTech holds the patents for that project.

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For its part, Public Citizen has argued the U.S. government has partial rights to Moderna coronavirus vaccine patents. The company’s latest move “presumably is designed to help the corporation avoid costly patent litigation,” Peter Maybarduk, the group’s access to medicines director, said in a statement.  

Public Citizen’s research has found that U.S. taxpayers will end up having to pay twice for the vaccine—first through initial research and then through the procurement of doses. Further, the U.S. government may have some rights to key patents, Public Citizen concluded in an analysis of documents obtained by Axios.