Opinion

Opinion | Biden’s Moderna Vaccine Double-Cross

Most Americans had never heard of Moderna until the pandemic. In less than a year, the biotech startup produced the world’s most effective Covid vaccine—exemplifying U.S. leadership in scientific innovation. Now the Biden Administration is showing its gratitude by stabbing the company in the back.

Even by Washington norms, the Administration’s double-cross is remarkable.

Biden

officials in recent weeks have been leaking to the media that they are very unhappy with Moderna for allegedly putting profits over vaccinating the world’s poor.

During a panel on Wednesday with leftist groups, White House Covid czar

David Kessler

put the Administration’s complaints—along with a threat—on the record. “We’ve been in very, very intense discussions with Moderna,” Dr. Kessler said. “Do not underestimate the resolve of the United States government in addressing this issue.”

Moderna has already pledged 500 million doses to Covax, the World Health Organization-backed group distributing donated vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. But progressives want the White House to use the Defense Production Act (or other means) to make Moderna share its intellectual property with the world.

In a letter to Dr. Kessler on Tuesday, 12 Democrats in Congress, led by Senators

Elizabeth Warren

and

Bernie Sanders,

asserted that the government may have the right to confiscate Moderna’s IP because it has received “huge sums of public funding from American taxpayers.” The feds have held Moderna “‘by the hand on a daily basis,’” they said.

***

All of this is false. To deflect the charge from the left that the U.S. has hoarded vaccines, the White House is kicking Moderna as a scapegoat. Someone needs to correct this progressive misinformation before it harms the great promise of American biotech.

Start with the fiction that government created Moderna’s vaccine success. The startup had “neither successfully brought a product to market nor advanced a vaccine candidate to stage three clinical trials” before the pandemic, Ms. Warren and friends write. Vaccines usually take a decade or longer to develop. Moderna launched in 2010.

The startup pioneered mRNA, which uses genetic code to instruct human cells how to create proteins. One advantage of mRNA is it can be manufactured rapidly at low cost, unlike traditional vaccines. While creating mRNA itself is simple, the research challenge has long been delivering it into cells.

Before the pandemic, Moderna had invested more than $2.5 billion in developing its platform, which includes the lipid nanoparticles that encapsulate the mRNA. It has more than 30 mRNA vaccines and therapeutics in its clinical pipeline, and before the pandemic six prophylactic vaccines had shown positive results in Phase 1 trials.

This is why the National Institutes of Health in January 2020 sought to collaborate with Moderna on a Covid vaccine. Large drug makers were reluctant to step up, as Anthony Fauci and Ron Klain (now White House chief of staff) explained at the time, because some had lost money trying to produce an Ebola vaccine. They didn’t want to take that risk again.

Moderna volunteered but only had $250 million in cash at the end of 2019, which wasn’t enough to conduct large-scale trials. The Trump Administration gave it $900 million for trials. After its Phase 1 trial succeeded, Moderna raised $1.3 billion in private capital to scale up manufacturing. It had only about 800 employees (now it has about 1,800) compared to

Pfizer’s

80,000.

The Trump Administration ordered 200 million Moderna doses in advance at a cost of $3.2 billion to ensure Americans would be first in line for the vaccines once they were approved. The Biden Administration ordered another 100 million doses in February and 200 million in June. So no, Sen. Warren, the government didn’t give Moderna $10 billion.

The government paid Moderna so Americans could have its vaccine before the rest of the world, and the cost was a pittance compared to the tens of thousand of lives it has saved. The immunity from Moderna’s vaccine has also proved more durable than from Pfizer’s because it includes three times as much mRNA.

Moderna rapidly expanded its manufacturing capacity to one billion doses this year and plans to increase its capacity to two to three billion doses next year. (The combined global capacity for annual flu vaccines is only 1.5 billion.) Ten percent of Moderna’s Covid vaccine supply this year is being donated to Covax and 20% in the first quarter of next year.

Other companies have ramped up too, and about 23 million to 33 million doses have been administered each day for the last 30 days. About 3.8 billion people globally have received at least one dose. Within a few months there will be enough doses for every adult on the planet. The bigger challenge is the logistics in low-income countries to distribute vaccines, and Moderna is assisting with that too.

As for intellectual property, Moderna has agreed not to enforce its patents and has contracted with manufacturers in lower-income countries for “fill and finishing” jobs that require less expertise. That’s not enough for the left, which wants the Biden Administration to force Moderna to transfer its know-how to these manufacturers. This is what the Chinese government does to U.S. companies.

***

Progressives in effect want Mr. Biden to hand America’s precious biotech secrets to the Chinese and Russians. Nothing in Moderna’s contracts with the U.S. government gives the Administration the right to do this, and it would set a horrendous precedent that would discourage innovation and private collaboration with the government in future pandemics.

Pfizer is looking even smarter for rejecting government funding for its trials. “When you get money from someone, that always comes with strings,” CEO

Albert Bourla

said last September. But Pfizer unlike Moderna has a huge balance sheet.

Moderna is relying on Covid vaccine profits from sales to wealthier countries to fund other mRNA vaccines against such scourges as RSV, Cytomegalovirus and Zika, which will mostly benefit low-income countries. The U.S. is paying Moderna only $15 for a single vaccine dose, $30 for a full regimen.

The White House broadside against Moderna is despicable but also all too typical.

Paul Gigot interviews Dr. Marty Makary. Photo: Associated Press

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