Vaccine capitalism: Moderna takes public money, demands private profit

Despite the ongoing need for emergency action to address the pandemic, pharmaceutical giant Moderna is focused on asserting its property rights over the COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna is currently clashing with the National Institutes of Health over who is responsible for creating the specific genetic sequence in the vaccine that prompts an immune response in patients.

The NIH would like three of the scientists at its Vaccine Research Center, who took part in a four-year collaboration with Moderna to develop its vaccine technology, to be co-named as inventors of the COVID-19 vaccine. But Moderna would like to take full credit — and profit.

Moderna is asserting that its scientists were solely responsible for the development of the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine. This claim not only ignores the multiple NIH scientists who worked in collaboration with Moderna, but also the $1.4 billion in taxpayer money allocated to the company by the federal government for the vaccine’s development. The U.S. government later paid Moderna an additional $8.1 billion for the actual vaccine doses.

Tension between the NIH and Moderna has been simmering unresolved for approximately a year, which is why the news that Moderna quietly filed for a patent on the COVID-19 vaccine in July came as a surprise to the government.

Moderna is attempting to bolster its profits with this maneuver even though it is already on track to have one of the highest single year sales for any medical product in history. This year the vaccine brought Moderna $18 billion in revenue, and the company has already booked $35 billion worth of deals through late 2022. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel topped the list of highest-paid biopharma CEOs in 2018 by raking in $58.6 million in a single year. 

These soaring pharmaceutical profits will remain unchecked under private ownership if Moderna is permitted to take full credit for the vaccine. And much more than prestige and credit are at stake in this battle.

In the case that the U.S. Patent Office approves Moderna’s request, taking the corporation to court will be the federal government’s only recourse to be co-named on the technology. If this lawsuit were successful, the vaccine could then be licensed to the U.S. government for distribution. This would give the government the power to allow other companies to reproduce the vaccine, significantly increasing its availability both domestically and worldwide. On its own, Moderna has been repeatedly criticized for its apathy towards making its vaccines available in poorer nations. 

While not an uncommon tactic for pharmaceutical companies in the United States, Moderna’s actions are a particularly disgusting example of the total disregard for human life that characterizes the medical system under capitalism. If a global pandemic was not enough to rein in the rampant greed of pharmaceutical executives, it is clear that the class struggle for healthcare as a right must intensify.

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