Moderna: This should be a People’s Vaccine, not a profit vaccine
Unlike most other companies competing to produce Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, Moderna is relatively young, founded in 2010. It is a US-based biotech firm and is producing the Covid-19 vaccine known formally as mRNA-1273 – currently the firm’s only product on the market.
The technology behind Moderna’s vaccine was created almost entirely with public money, with significant quantities of the production and scale-up of the vaccine also supported by the taxpayer. Not including early research into the technology behind the vaccine, the US government has spent $5.75 billion on the vaccine’s development, manufacture, trials and advance purchase agreements. All in all US authorities have said they are “reimbursing Moderna for 100 percent of the allowable costs.”
Public Citizen claims that in effect this means “Taxpayers are paying for 100% of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine development. All of it. Yet taxpayers may wind up paying tens of billions more to Moderna to buy our vaccine back.”
Despite this, Moderna is making a profit, and it’s prices are high compared to other producers. Prices currently range from $24- $74 for 2 doses under its pandemic pricing, suggesting the prices will rise in the future. In 2021, Moderna expects to bring in $18 billion from vaccine sales – likely making it the third biggest selling pharmaceutical product this year. This is staggering given that experts have suggested these types of vaccines could cost as little as 60 cents to $2 per dose to make.
To date, Moderna has sold the options for nearly all its supply to rich nations, making it the least fairly distributed vaccine in use. A full 97% of its sales have been to the rich world (1.25 billion doses) while 3% have gone to middle income countries (35.2 million doses) and nothing to low income countries or the global distribution facility COVAX. While Moderna has said it won’t enforce property rights during the pandemic, it has failed to share the technology behind the vaccine, or the know-how necessary to make it.
It’s not bad news for everyone, however. Since the pandemic began, Moderna’s CEO Stephane Bancel has cashed out over $142 million in Moderna stock. He’s now a billionaire – worth over $5 billion.
Moderna has been criticised for the huge amount of stock its corporate executives sold after the company announced early positive results in May 2020, when its stock price rose rapidly, even though the results weren’t released in any detail. Hours after releasing, two Moderna executives sold off nearly $30 million in automated sale shares. Days later, Moderna’s leading shareholder sold 1 million shares, earning $69.5 million. Former Securities and Exchange Commission officials said the events were “highly problematic” and worthy of investigation.
There is good news, however. Because the technology which the vaccine was based was fully funded by the US government, it has retained some rights to license that technology openly. Last month, campaigners wrote to US president Biden, urging him to use this power to ramp up manufacturing and openly share the technology behind this vaccine.
This matters well beyond Covid-19. Moderna is using its MRNA technology to develop other vaccines, such as an HIV and cancer vaccines. While these medicines could undoubtedly by extremely profitable – presumably one reason the intellectual property is so important – they could also transform important elements of our health system. And though we’re not there yet, there are many reasons to believe they could be easy to edit and replicate quickly.
As such this is a vital resource for humanity which could transform the lives of huge numbers of people. Given the vast public money which has gone into it, this technology should become a public good, not an opportunity to create more billionaires.
What we can do
There is no reason big pharma companies should remain in the driving seat. Governments have the power to put global public health first.
We are campaigning for the suspension of patents and for companies to share their blueprints on all Covid-19 vaccines to help scale up the global vaccine effort and give the world the best chance of getting this disease under control.