Patent Rights Perpetuate the Pandemic

A production scientist works with samples at the Afrigen Biologics site in Cape Town, South Africa. Image credit: REUTERS/Shelley Christians

After eight months of research, a small company, Afrigen Biologics, has reverse-engineered the Moderna vaccine. In other times, this would be illegal because Moderna owns patent rights to the vaccine’s formula. Although Moderna stated it would not enforce patents for its COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic, the company nonetheless refused to share the protocol it used to make the vaccine with other labs. Since Afrigen Biologics didn’t have the protocol, it took them eight months to reverse-engineer Moderna’s mRNA vaccine. And because the process they had used was not the patented and approved process, Afrigen’s vaccine will need to go through the rigors of new clinical trials, even though Moderna had already completed clinical trials. Furthermore, now Moderna is not doing as it said, and is filing for its patent rights in South Africa, further assuring human suffering will not get in their way of profiting as much as possible from the pandemic.

Moderna has profited mightily by selling up to 70% of their vaccine to wealthy countries. While the Omicron variant ravaged South Africa in late 2021, Moderna did not provide additional doses to South Africa but instead made more vaccine available in the U.S. to “boost” the already vaccinated. 

It’s important to remember that Moderna’s vaccine development was subsidized by the U.S. government, and then Moderna sold this subsidized product back to the government for distribution. Profiting was always the goal; not stopping a pandemic. The virus, COVID-19, is just looking to reproduce itself. The more vulnerable people there are in the world, the more the virus has the opportunity to thrive. You cannot combat a global pandemic by only treating the people in the wealthiest countries.

Moderna and other drug companies had the same response that companies have to any other crisis – how do we profit? It’s capitalism; it’s cold, it’s deadly, it has no compassion.  

Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, said of the pandemic, “CEOs really stepped up this year. We would not be where we are in the world today without the outstanding leadership of many, many CEO’s…” He’s right. Without them, we’d have over one hundred labs worldwide locally producing vaccine, slowing or even stopping the spread of COVID. Millions of people wouldn’t be mourning the loss of loved ones. Decisions on how to stop this pandemic wouldn’t have been warped by profit considerations.