After nearly two years of criticism from activists and White House, Moderna unveils a new plan for global health
Moderna, the target of nearly two years of criticism for its policies around global access to its Covid-19 vaccine, announced on Monday a new plan to address global health.
The mRNA biotech said it would launch a four-part program. First, it would put vaccines into clinical testing for 15 pathogens that could either cause future pandemics, such as Nipah virus or Zika, or that primarily affect the developing world, such as tuberculosis and malaria.
Second, it would start a program called mRNA Access to give researchers around the globe tools to manufacture mRNA for lab and animal studies. And it will select a site in Kenya for its planned African mRNA manufacturing plant, announced earlier today, which the company had previously said would only be somewhere on the continent.
Lastly, Moderna announced that, for 92 low and middle-income countries, it will never enforce its patents on its Covid-19 vaccines, extending a limited version of a promise it had made at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We must not assume that the COVID-19 pandemic will be the last pandemic that will impact global health,” said CEO Stéphane Bancel. “Since our beginning, we have focused on developing a global health vaccine program and today, we are renewing that focus.”
The new moves come after more than a year of criticism, initially from activists and NGOs but most recently from the Biden White House, that Moderna was not doing enough to make its highly effective Covid-19 vaccine available around the globe.
Some of those same activists welcome Moderna’s new moves, even if it didn’t go quite far enough in increasing immediate vaccine access.
“The promises they made — to me, they seem meaningful,” said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International. “They’re clearly pressured by the White House and pressed by activists and other people to do more than they’re doing.”
While AstraZeneca and J&J prioritized low and middle-income countries with their shot, Moderna initially sold the vast majority of its vaccines to the US and other wealthy nations.
Although it eventually pledged 500 million doses to Covax, the UN-backed body for equitably distributing vaccines, the biotech resisted calls to transfer its mRNA technology to manufacturing plants in other parts of the globe that activists said might be able to produce more shots.
Moderna executives said they were a small biotech that didn’t necessarily have the staff to conduct such complex transfers while also scaling up facilities in the US and Europe. That argument had some traction with vaccine manufacturing experts but Politico reported that Biden administration officials believed Moderna was more concerned with its bottom line: Companies generally sell vaccines at cost in poorer nations, rather than at a profit.
Moderna’s new announcement also elides an easy answer on the most high-profile effort to scale up Moderna’s vaccine around the world. A WHO-backed team in South Africa has worked to reverse-engineer the company’s shot to create a free and scalable version.
Its director has said it would take one to two years with Moderna’s help, but three to four years without it. And the legal status of the effort was unclear, given that Moderna had promised to not enforce its patents during the pandemic and Bancel had hinted the company may soon change its posture.
Activists noted that although Moderna’s new pledge includes a promise to not enforce patents in 92 countries, it does not include South Africa, where the WHO effort is underway. And to the contrary, Moderna’s new statement says it expects countries outside those 92 to “respect the Company’s intellectual property”
However, Peter Maybarduk of Public Citizen said his understanding is that Moderna will not stop production of the WHO-backed vaccine in South Africa. It will simply stop them from selling it there.
“It’s good,” he said. “Moderna is stepping out of the way as an obstacle.”
But limiting the market for the WHO effort will also limit the commercial viability of any company that wants to manufacture the reverse-engineered shot, he said, potentially undermining the effort.
”Moderna still has not done what is most needed,” Maybarduk said. That, he said, would be to actively help transfer its technology to the WHO and scientists in South Africa. “Instead, we have Moderna carving up a map and trying to decide who can cooperate with who.”
Love noted that the 92 countries also do not include large swaths of Asia and Latin America.
“It’s a relatively conservative area for them,” he said.
Moderna did not respond to questions about how its new policy will affect the South African effort.
Moderna’s new strategy includes multiple licensing plans, but neither seems to cover them. The company said it would license to other manufacturers as it begins focusing on developing new vaccines, but only “on commercially reasonable terms.” And the mRNA Access program only covers preclinical development — a stage where many researchers, although far from all, already have capabilities.
The new plant in Africa, which Moderna expects to eventually produce 500 million doses of vaccine per year, stands in contrast to a BioNTech plan unveiled last month. The German company said it would supply capacity in Africa by developing portable factories that can be built in Europe and shipped to different regions around the globe.
The plan to develop new vaccines for potential pathogens mirrors calls from the NIH and other groups to develop prototype shots to guard against future pandemics. In malaria and tuberculosis, Moderna’s new efforts will compete against mRNA shots already in development from BioNTech.
Zachary Brennan contributed reporting