Profit-driven bosses at Moderna have iced out of the main patent for its COVID-19 vaccine the scientists from the federal government’s National Institutes of Health, which helped pay for and develop it. The fight over this patent exposes the dog-eat-dog morality of capitalism, where all so-called health care is a business organized primarily to maximize profits, not save lives.
Moderna filed for the patent in July, claiming the company invented the mRNA technology used in its vaccine. It entirely excluded the scientists from the federal agency’s Vaccine Research Center who helped develop the genetic sequence that prompts the vaccine to produce an immune response to the virus. Moderna and the research center collaborated on mRNA vaccine development for four years.
Moderna, which prior to its COVID-19 vaccine had never brought any product to market, received nearly $1.4 billion from the U.S. government to develop and test the vaccine and $8.1 billion to produce half a billion doses. Moderna is on track this year to bring in up to $18 billion in revenue, with deals worth up to another $20 billion set for 2022.
Ownership of the patent guarantees a monopoly on production and superprofits. It enables Moderna, like its chief competitor Pfizer and other pharmaceutical monopolies, to block the manufacture and distribution of these vaccines worldwide.
Moderna is not interested in ramping up production for countries that can’t afford to pay exorbitant prices for the vaccine. Its owners worry that if the U.S. government scientists were included on the patent, the National Institutes for Health could sell the license to others to produce the vaccine, cutting into Moderna’s profits. The agency is considering taking the pharma bosses to court.
The Joseph Biden administration has promised to donate 1.1 billion vaccine doses to other countries, to portray U.S. imperialism as a generous Uncle Sam, bolstering his rhetoric about vaccinating the world. That might sound like a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. There are 1.3 billion people in Africa alone, some 18% of the world’s population, but only 1% are vaccinated. And the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both take two shots to be effective, halving the number of people who would be inoculated by the U.S. offer.
At the same time Washington is hoarding unused vaccines. Doctors Without Borders estimates “that 1 million lives could be saved worldwide by mid-2022 if the U.S. and other wealthy nations were to distribute excess stockpile abroad,” reports New York Magazine.
Salk: ‘Could you patent the sun?’
A starkly different approach was taken nearly 70 years ago when Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio, which saved millions of lives. Instead of seeking a patent, Salk made this scientific advance available to all humanity.
When he was asked who owned the polio vaccine patent, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
In 1952 there were 58,000 children in the U.S. paralyzed by polio, and hundreds of thousands more worldwide. Salk’s vaccine was given voluntarily through the schools with parents’ consent, starting in 1955. By 1962 the vaccination reduced polio virus infections by about 95%.
Revolutionary Cuba is advancing steadily in its vaccination program. Over 90% of the population has had at least one shot — of one of three vaccines that medical researchers there have created — and over 70% are fully vaccinated, well ahead of the overwhelming majority of countries. And this is despite the U.S. economic embargo, which makes it hard to import necessary raw materials or even syringes.
This is being done not through vaccine mandates but by convincing people of the need to get the shots, which are free for everyone. The government is organizing to complete vaccination of the entire eligible population by the end of the year.
This is possible because working people in Cuba trust the government and see it as their own, a result of the revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959 and brought the working class to power. And the Cuban government is making its vaccines available to other countries, including Nicaragua, Iran, Venezuela and Vietnam.
Cuba’s success shows what is possible when working people make a socialist revolution and take health care out of the hands of profit-hungry capitalists.