Moderna criticized for COVID-19 vaccine strategy putting once feel-good success story in jeopardy

mRNA vaccine
In justifying why it will not share its COVID-19 vaccine formula with the world, Moderna said it spent $2.5 billion and 10 years on the platform used to develop the shot. (niphon/Getty Images)

Since it was approved 10 months ago, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine has enjoyed a relatively unfettered run on its way to being considered one of the world’s two elite shots. 

But while COVID vaccine rival and pharmaceutical goliath Pfizer has faced a demanding spotlight, biotech Moderna has skipped along under the radar, avoiding scrutiny and gaining favor as a feel-good, success story.   

But that’s starting to change. With evidence mounting that other vaccine producers have made their shots more readily available to poorer countries, the shine is wearing off the Boston-based company. And with Tuesday’s revelation to the Associated Press that Moderna has no intention of sharing its mRNA vaccine formula with the rest of the world, the company has taken another public relations hit.

On Tuesday night, Moderna even became monologue fodder for late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel, between jokes about disgraced former football coach Jon Gruden and Texas governor Greg Abbott who is “doing his best to bring COVID back,” Kimmel said.

Kimmel poked fun at Moderna as a one-hit wonder. The COVID vaccine is the only product the company has brought to the market.

“Imagine only making one thing and billions of people want it,” Kimmel asked his live audience. “This must be how the Baha Men felt after recording ‘Who Let the Dogs Out.”

Kimmel also suggested that since Moderna doesn’t trust other nations to accurately manufacture its vaccine, the U.S. should purchase the vaccine and have McDonald’s produce it.    

“Think about it,” Kimmel said. “When you want consistency—relentless laser-focused consistency—where do you go? McDonald’s.”

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Earlier in the day, when Moderna’s chairman Noubar Afeyan was asked about an appeal from the United Nations to share its vaccine recipe, he told the AP that the company has determined the best way to address the pandemic is for Moderna to produce more shots.

“Within the next six to nine months, the most reliable way to make high-quality vaccines and in an efficient way is going to be if we make them,” Afeyan said. “[Moderna] went from having zero production to having 1 billion doses in less than a year, and we think we will be able to go from 1 to 3 billion in 2022.

Afeyan noted that Moderna spent $2.5 billion and 10 years on the platform that led to the development of the vaccine.

Last weekend, The New York Times pointed out that while Moderna has provided roughly 1 million vaccine doses to countries classified by the World Bank as low income, Pfizer has supplied 8.4 million and Johnson & Johnson has supplied approximately 25 million doses of its single-shot vaccine.

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Moderna also has been criticized for not making its shot more accessible to poorer nations, especially considering it received $1.3 billion in government funding to develop the vaccine. The Biden administration has privately urged Moderna—as well as Pfizer—to license their shots to make them more available in low- and middle-income countries, The Times reports.

“We think we are doing everything we can to help this pandemic,” Afeyan told the AP.

Meanwhile, the company hopes to soon gain approval to provide COVID booster shots in a half dose. The FDA meets this week to review booster data from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.