Moderna is expected to reveal its third quarter earnings on Nov. 4. The announcement will be a story of historic profits for the producer of one of the world’s most highly effective Covid-19 vaccines.
At the same time, only 3.9% of people in low-income countries have received even a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine.
This windfall obscures the dismal distribution of the Moderna vaccine in most parts of the world. Although the African Union recently announced its intent to purchase 110 million doses of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine, most low-income countries have yet to secure any doses and the company refuses to share information that would allow other manufacturers to produce its mRNA vaccine and help end this global pandemic.
Moderna isn’t alone: Pfizer, which with BioNTech produces the other mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccine, is on pace to make about $34 billion this year from its Covid-19 vaccine while also refusing to share its technology with other manufacturers to boost global production. Moderna is unique, however, because of the amount of U.S. public funding it has received for the development of its vaccine.
The federal government gave Moderna $10 billion in taxpayer money for research and development and for advanced purchases of the vaccine. This includes almost the entire cost of clinical development and the purchase of 500 million doses. Moderna also used patent and nonexclusive rights that the government made available to the company to make this Covid-19 vaccine.
After receiving so much public funding from U.S. taxpayers, Moderna has not lived up to its stated commitment to use its “resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible.”
Given the tremendous support it received from the U.S. government and taxpayers, the company has a responsibility to help vaccinate the world to save lives and stem the development of new variants that may prolong the pandemic indefinitely.
Moderna’s vaccine would not exist without funding from U.S. taxpayers. The U.S. government has committed to help lead the global vaccination effort, and, according to reports, it has asked the company to step up its effort to increase global vaccination, including through technology transfer. Moderna may not agree, but accepting billions of dollars in public money to develop a lifesaving vaccine in the middle of a pandemic means the company is accountable to the public.
Instead, Moderna has offered hollow declarations, saying it will boost its supply by creating a new vaccine production facility in Africa — fully controlled by the company — within the next four years. In a pandemic that has killed 5 million people so far, and continues to affect every corner of the globe, four years is entirely too long.
Not to mention that this is a project with no clear timelines, no involvement of local industrial actors, and no guarantees of affordable pricing. It is not the answer to needs in Africa, where only one in 10 health care workers, and less than 6% of the population, is fully vaccinated.
“The only way to do it right, if you take a 5-to-10-year view, [is] to build our own plant like we’ve done in America,” Moderna chief executive Stéphane Bancel told the Washington Post.
Right for whom? In projects around the world, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières sees health care workers and patients desperate to protect themselves against this virus, but we have nothing to offer them. We cannot wait years for one of the only producers of mRNA vaccines to ramp up its production capacity outside the U.S. Neither can the world.
Although Moderna said it won’t enforce patents on the vaccine while the pandemic continues, it knows that vaccine development includes more than just patents. Additional companies that could be well placed to produce the mRNA vaccine could be supported through technology sharing.
If Moderna was truly committed to ramping up production of its vaccine, it would share mRNA vaccine technology and know-how through the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa. This hub, which was created to optimize tech transfer efficiency and impact, would offer support and training to manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries that stand ready to make mRNA vaccines. Moderna and Pfizer have refused to share the necessary information with the hub, stifling the initiative before it has a chance to truly start.
Since Moderna has benefitted from so much U.S. public funding and refuses to share this information, the Biden administration — which has already said publicly that pharmaceutical companies aren’t doing enough — must demand it do so. Specifically, the administration should use the significant legal leverage afforded by the Defense Production Act to force Moderna to share vaccine technology and know-how. If Moderna can’t be convinced or shamed, it’s the responsibility of the U.S. government to force Moderna to share its technology immediately.
With the advent of vaccines, Covid-19 deaths are now almost completely preventable. The four-year timeline proposed by Moderna to bring vaccines to low- and middle-income countries is unconscionable. It means that Moderna and the world’s governments are choosing to let countless people die preventable deaths. And it means prolonging the pandemic for everyone, everywhere.
Doctors Without Borders commends the Moderna scientists, engineers, and staff who have worked so diligently to deliver this modern-day miracle: a vaccine against Covid-19. They — and the U.S. taxpayers who financed their work on this vaccine — deserve to have it benefit as many people around the globe as possible. This pandemic has laid bare the injustice of a system that makes lifesaving vaccines available to people in wealthy countries while a vast swath of the world goes without them. Everyone, everywhere should benefit from this vaccine. Moderna owes the world.
Carrie Teicher is a physician, epidemiologist, and director of programs at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières USA.
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