Moderna’s Global Public Health Strategy:  Parsing the Hype and Shameful Access Gaps

Moderna has announced today a new Global Public Health Strategy granting only limited access to its covid vaccine patents and mRNA technology platform. Despite minor progress on a few issues, resulting from months of global pressure from activists and others, their new strategy largely perpetuates Moderna’s monopoly control over its publicly subsidized mRNA vaccine technology.

In an exercise of corporate hubris, Moderna has declared as part of its strategy that the pandemic is over and thus that it fully intends to enforce its intellectual property rights in high-income and virtually all upper-middle-income countries. Ignoring the 2.89 billion people worldwide who have not received a single vaccine, Moderna appears to reflect the myopic, “it’s over” world view of its Board of Directors and highly vaccinated executive suite. Declaring not only that the pandemic is over, but that global vaccines supplies are sufficient to meet need, Moderna is threatening any company that would dare to sell copycat mRNA vaccines to the relatively richer countries where Moderna intends to maximize its profits.

Moderna tries to soften its raw exercise of power by updating its “Patent Pledge” to confirm that it will not enforce its patents in the 92 countries, mostly low-income and lower-middle-income, eligible for subsidized vaccines from GAVI’s COVAX AMC Facility. It has long been obvious that access to patent rights is necessary but not sufficient to expedite manufacture of bio-identical vaccines. Alternative producers also need access to confidential manufacturing know-how, data, and quality assurance protocols. Moderna’s statement says nothing about sharing this necessary confidential information even with companies that might intend only to supply the 92-country territory. Even now, Moderna refuses to share technology necessary for commercial-scale production, with the WHO mRNA Technology Transfer Hub, which is already seeking to expand regional mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity with thirteen partners. Moderna’s prioritization of monopoly power over health security has resulted in preventable suffering and death and has prolonged the global pandemic. 

Moderna’s statement initially created anxiety about whether it would enforce its patent rights in South Africa to restrict the operation of the WHO Technology Transfer Hub. Subsequent clarifications have confirmed that Moderna will not enforce its South African patents with respect to sales in the 92 COVAX countries, but it will not allow sales in Moderna’s reserved territories, which paradoxically includes South Africa itself. Modern has also claimed that it will license its vaccine to other producers to sell outside the 92 countries on “commercially reasonable terms,” but then again appears to limit those licenses to patent rights rather than rights to know-how.

In response to demands that it expand mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, Moderna also announced that “with the assistance of the U.S. government,” it had entered into a memorandum of understanding to establish a new company-owned and operated mRNA manufacturing facility in Kenya, capable of producing 500 million vaccine doses a year. The extent of U.S. assistance or subsidy has not been specified, but it is clear that Moderna is not supporting independent manufacturing capacity but just a new outpost for production, sale, and distribution on terms it alone decides.

The last two parts of Moderna’s Strategy focus on its own research intentions and expanded collaboration with neglected disease researchers. With respect to its own future research, Moderna simply states that it will research vaccines against priority pathogens, neglecting to describe how this further strengthens its growing mRNA empire. Researching infectious pathogens is important. But monopoly control over the fruits of scientific research rebound mainly to the benefit of shareholders and executives and is not equitably enjoyed by people in low- and middle-income countries. Finally, Moderna has also promised to open up its pre-clinical manufacturing capacity and R&D expertise to research partners interested in addressing neglected diseases. Again research on neglected diseases is important, but Moderna is only opening up lab and animal studies and has not clarified the intellectual property status of resulting innovations that might thereafter go through clinical trials and commercial exploitation.

Moderna’s Global Public Health Strategy is largely hot air. It misdirects attention to patent rights only and even then reserves the majority of the world’s population, including virtually all of Latin America and the Caribbean, to its monopoly control. Instead of mystifying and misdirecting, Moderna, which has earned $17.7 billion in 2021 with an additional $22 billion expected in 2022, should share its mRNA technology platform as a global public good with the WHO mRNA Technology Transfer Hub and any other interested producers.