Friday, December 2

Lawsuits on mRNA technology show profit-driven struggle for control over vital scientific discoveries

Introduction

Indeed, it was not an overnight [the mRNA vaccines], but decades of overnight and hard work which led to us—me, Drew Weissman [Colleague and close collaborator] and Pieter Cullis—to do this, and I have to say, thousands of other scientists. Science is a group activity and there is not ‘I,’ but ‘We, we, we.’ And even those people who came well before us and they are not with us anymore, we learned from them through the decades.”—Senior Vice President of BioNTech in Germany, Dr. Katalin Karikó

The number of applications for mRNA and siRNA [silencing RNA] that various companies are exploiting … we’ve only touched the surface of this … It’s completely revolutionary. We are moving into an era of personalized therapeutics.”—Dr. Pieter Cullis, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of British Columbia

On August 26, pharmaceutical and biotech company Moderna filed a patent infringement lawsuit claiming its competitor Pfizer and BioNTech illegally copied the “foundational” mRNA technology it had developed for the COVID-19 vaccines administered to billions of people internationally. According to Our World in Data, 5.3 billion people have received at least one dose and 4.9 billion at least two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Both companies have generated billions in revenue, making their shareholders immensely rich.

In a press statement, Moderna said it filed complaints in both the US and Germany against Pfizer and BioNTech’s Comirnaty vaccine product for infringing on patents filed between 2010 and 2016 “covering Moderna’s foundational mRNA technology” used in its product called Spikevax.

Moderna has made it clear that it is not seeking to have the Pfizer-BioNTech product removed from the market or an injunction against future sales of the competitive vaccine. It is also not pursuing monetary damages in “the 92 low- to middle-income countries” where vaccines have been administered.

Even though one-third of the world—2.7 billion people—have yet to receive any vaccine against COVID-19, and the virus continues to maim and kill, Moderna cynically claims that it is motivated by a “commitment to equitable global access.” The $54 billion biotech firm would also like to be considered magnanimous for “also not seeking damages for activities occurring before March 8, 2022.”

The corporate statement says, “Moderna expected companies such as Pfizer and BioNTech to respect its intellectual property rights and would consider a commercially reasonable license should they request one for other markets. Pfizer and BioNTech have failed to do so.” The lawsuit is seeking a court judgment that will force Pfizer and BioNTech to compensate Moderna for the “ongoing use of Moderna’s patented technologies.”

Company CEO Stéphane Bancel said the lawsuits were being filed “to protect the innovative mRNA technology platform that we pioneered, invested billions of dollars in creating, and patented during the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, as Bancel went on to explain, the lawsuits are aimed at ensuring Moderna’s proprietary ownership of the groundbreaking mRNA technology. The company is in pursuit of the massive profits to be derived from what it anticipates will be a series of never-ending public health applications. “As we work to combat health challenges moving forward, Moderna is using our mRNA technology platform to develop medicines that could treat and prevent infectious diseases like influenza and HIV, as well as autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases and rare forms of cancer,” he declared.

A Pfizer representative said the company was “surprised by the litigation but remains confident in the intellectual property supporting their vaccine.” In a statement, BioNTech said its “work is original and, we will vigorously defend against all allegations of patent infringement.”

Moderna is a prototype of the capitalist enterprise as pandemic profiteer, matched in every respect, and overshadowed in size, by its gargantuan antagonist Pfizer. Moderna’s NASDAQ share price went from around $20 in January 2020 to a peak of $484 in August 2021, a 24-fold increase.

Three Moderna individuals—Noubar Afeyan, chairman and co-founder; Robert Langer, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and co-founder; and Timothy Springer, a Harvard Medical School professor and early investor in the company—were propelled into the Forbes list of the 400 richest individuals in America in October 2021. They were all listed with a personal net worth exceeding $3.5 billion.

The rapid rise in the fortunes of the executives and investors of Moderna is directly linked to the massive financial resources contained in the CARES Act passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in the spring of 2020.

After denying the need for any response to the public health crisis in the early months of 2020, the Trump White House, under the direction of Assistant to the President, Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, began an $18 billion handout to private corporations for the development of a vaccine called Operation Warp Speed.

A Health Department worker fills a syringe with Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before administering it to emergency medical workers and healthcare personnel. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Even though Moderna was already flush with cash and had designed a vaccine by February 24, 2020, the US government gave the biotech firm $483 million in mid-April. This initial cash infusion triggered a rapid rise in Moderna’s stock value.

Significantly, according to details published by author J. David McSwane in his recent book Pandemic Inc., Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick, two weeks after the government grant, Moderna board member and longtime pharma executive Moncef Slaoui was awarded options by the company to purchase more than 18,000 shares at a discount that was unavailable to the public.

Meanwhile, McSwane writes, “On May 15, Trump announced that Slaoui would be one of two czars in charge of Operation Warp Speed; facing public scrutiny, Slaoui resigned from Moderna’s board, forfeiting his most recent options, which had not vested. But because the Trump administration labeled Slaoui a contractor, he was able to otherwise keep his existing stake and vested options at the same time he helped direct billions that would go to that very company.”

When Moderna announced positive results from its first clinical trials of the vaccine, McSwane says the firm’s stock price rose precipitously, and Slaoui’s stake in the company shot up to $9.1 million.

From January 1 to May 2020, McSwane says, “Moderna executives made a mint, selling off $89 million in stock. Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, pocketed $13.6 million, selling just a sliver of his 9 percent stake in the company. The company’s chief financial officer, Lorence Kim, made a $37 million profit in the same time frame.”



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