Moderna is suing Pfizer and BioNTech over alleged infringement of its mRNA vaccine technology patents, the company announced today.
“We are filing these lawsuits to protect the innovative mRNA technology platform that we pioneered, invested billions of dollars in creating, and patented during the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Moderna chief executive officer Stéphane Bancel in a statement.
Moderna said in 2020 that it would not enforce its patents during the pandemic to allow for an unhindered public health response. It’s still not planning to enforce patents in low- and middle-income countries, the company said in a statement. But it’s coming after Pfizer and BioNTech, which it said it expected to “respect its intellectual property rights.” In the filing, the company said, “Moderna refrained from asserting its patents earlier so as not to distract from efforts to bring the pandemic to an end as quickly as possible.”
The lawsuit shouldn’t have a major effect on vaccine availability — Moderna said that it’s not looking to remove the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, known commercially as Comirnaty, from the market. It’s looking for payment, said Shannon Thyme Klinger, Moderna’s chief legal officer, in the statement: “Moderna expects Pfizer and BioNTech to compensate Moderna for Comirnaty’s ongoing use of Moderna’s patented technologies.”
It’s not asking for damages from vaccines sold to the United States government. But the US is planning to stop paying for COVID-19 vaccines, and they’ll be sold through normal commercial pathways.
Moderna and Pfizer / BioNTech both developed COVID-19 vaccines using mRNA. The shots introduce tiny snippets of the coronavirus’ genetic material to the body for it to create antibodies against.
In the legal filing, Moderna alleged that Pfizer / BioNTech copied two elements of its mRNA vaccine. The first is a chemical modification to the mRNA that prevents the body from attacking the vaccine before it can work in the body. mRNA vaccines that don’t include this type of modification, like the COVID-19 vaccine made by German company CureVac, are far less effective.
The second is the bit of the virus that the vaccines train the body to recognize — both companies’ vaccines target the full coronavirus spike protein, which is the part of the virus that lets it penetrate human cells. Moderna said in its legal filing that it has patents over vaccines with a full spike protein based on research on MERS, a different coronavirus.
Pfizer / BioNTech have also been sued for patent infringement by CureVac. Moderna is also facing lawsuits — biotechnology companies Arbutus Biopharma and Genevant Sciences sued over the method for packaging up the mRNA and delivering it to the body. Another biotechnology company, Alnylam, is suing both Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna over a similar technology.