A group of academics and activists are calling on the United States government to make sure an upcoming patent for technology at the heart of several coronavirus vaccines is used to increase access to the inoculants globally.
A patent is expected to soon be issued for a particular form of molecular engineering developed by US government scientists that is currently used by five manufacturers of mRNA coronavirus vaccines.
The category of vaccine uses synthetic mRNA to trigger human cells to make a harmless spike protein found on the coronavirus, prompting an immune response that inoculates an individual from actual infection. Other forms of vaccines typically use the weakened or inactivated virus.
In a letter to US health officials, six health advocacy organisations and 15 public health academics said the upcoming patent is an “important policy tool that the US government could use to facilitate scale up of production” for mRNA vaccines that use the technology.
Licensing agreements involving the patent could be used to “ensure rapid, equitable global access”, said the letter, which was sent to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Dr Francis Collins, and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) Dr Anthony Fauci.
It comes as wealthy countries have faced increased pressure from advocates and the World Health Organization (WHO) to share technology and rights with vaccine manufacturers in poorer and middle-income countries.
The US, as well as countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, have ordered enough doses to vaccinate their populations more than once, while several countries have struggled to secure access to doses. Some critics have dubbed the disparity vaccine apartheid.
‘Contribute to saving millions of lives’
The letter sent on Wednesday specifically singled out the Moderna vaccine, which was developed with the NIAID and received $2.5bn in government funding.
Moderna, along with three of the other five vaccine manufacturers that use the government technology, has currently no licensing agreement with Washington.
The authors of the letter said any licensing should include provisions that allow the US to authorise manufacturing of the Moderna vaccine; require technology sharing with the WHO to help ramp up global production; and include requirements for accessible pricing universally.
“This could contribute to saving millions of lives globally,” they wrote. “It also will help protect public health here at home. Global vaccination with highly effective vaccines, like mRNA-1273 [the Moderna vaccine], is our best defense against the development of vaccine-resistant variants of [the coronavirus].”
They argued the US government has leveraged patents this way in the past.
In recent weeks, the US has also faced increasing pressure to allocate globally a projected surplus of hundreds of millions of vaccine doses expected in the second half of 2021.
When asked on Wednesday how the US is balancing protecting intellectual property and innovation with moving faster to achieve a COVID-19-free world, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the US will “look at every option through the prism of whether it will save lives and how many lives it will save, and try to put our resources and efforts into those that we think will be most effective”.
She added: “Right now, our focus is on continuing to address the pandemic that is ongoing in the United States, given 1,000 people are still dying every single day.”