Moderna Potentially Hindering African Vaccine Producers with New Patent

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The start of 2020 was a very depressing time for the people of the world with the appearance of a new virus by the name of the Coronavirus. The virus which was found in Hubei, China, took the world by storm by spreading to 224 countries. Human movement was one of the reasons the virus developed into the deadly pandemic it currently is.

The World Health Organization, more commonly known as WHO, noted that there are more than 5,5 million lives lost globally because of COVID-19. Unfortunately, as of right now, nobody can predict when this pandemic will end, considering every other day a new mutation appears.

The state of this pandemic pushed the world’s population to rely on bio-tech and pharmaceutical companies to create a vaccine that is able to aid our immunity system in the fight against COVID-19. Vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer, Astra and Sinovac are here to do just that.

Out of the many countries affected by COVID-19, South Africa seems to be hit severely. The low vaccination rate is certainly no help to the situation, only around 11% from the 59 million population of the country have been vaccinated.  With how bad the situation in the country is, it comes as no surprise that when Moderna decided to acquire patents for their vaccine, health activists were up in arms about it.

Vaccine Hub and Moderna’s New Patent

Before delving into it deeper, it needs to be emphasized that South Africa is a low income country. Why is that relevant? Because vaccines are not free nor are they cheap. The cost of the vaccines are affecting their accessibility for the people of South Africa.

Citing The Guardian, in 2021, Moderna offered their vaccines for 30 to 42 USD per dosage to South Africa. That is one of the reasons WHO decided to build the vaccine hub.

The Vaccine Hub is run by a consortium of multiple African companies, such as Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a number of universities, as well as The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The purpose of establishing the Vaccine Hub is to produce mRNA vaccines, which can give the push our immunity needs to combat and protect the body from COVID-19.

Vaccines made by The Vaccine Hub could then be distributed in South Africa and other countries in the African continent. The main goal is to create a technology with the capability of creating a vaccine, which can then be shared with other struggling African countries so as not to depend on private companies. Not long after its creation, The Vaccine Hub managed to produce their own vaccine using the public sequence of Moderna’s vaccine.

Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines, part of the Vaccine Hub, succeeded in producing their version of the vaccine using reverse-engineering on Moderna’s vaccine. However, the new patent acquired by Moderna caused the company to halt their progress in fear of legal trouble. A number of activists then spoke out to spread word about Moderna’s new patent and criticized the company’s decision to do what they considered to be sabotage.

The Effects of Moderna’s New Patent

A number of activists have protested and demanded Moderna to revoke their patent on the vaccine product on which the South African Vaccine Hub’s products are based. They represent disappointment and concern not only for South Africans, but also for the majority of Africans who have not been vaccinated.

Given that the Vaccine Hub has conducted research and vaccine production and received funds from various countries, it is understandable that Moderna’s decision has disappointed many parties. Of course, Moderna heard the protests of the activists and researchers.

Moderna has finally released a statement that it will not enforce patents on their vaccine products in South Africa. But that statement was not enough to appease the Vaccine Hub and its supporters. The reason is, the legal risk is still there because at any time Moderna can change their mind. If this happens, the Vaccine Hub will have to stop the production process and clinical trials of their vaccines. Even so, it does not mean that the Vaccine Hub must stop their efforts to manufacture mRNA vaccines.

Recently, there was news that the African Vaccine Hub is advancing in the development of mRNA technology which will be disseminated to all countries on the continent. This is certainly good news. However, if Moderna revokes the patent on their vaccine technology and formula, the vaccine production process run by the Vaccine Hub will run more smoothly without the possibility of legal dispute.

Patent and Vaccine Invention in The COVID-19 Pandemic

Patenting a vaccine in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is indeed a sensitive issue. This is because there is a certain disconnect between intellectual property rights and human rights in a pandemic.

Every inventor has the right to register a patent on their invention. That way, they may get protection as well as benefits from patent registration which encourages the improvement of inventions.

However, in urgent situations where people are affected and are suffering from a pandemic, patents can limit the possibility of help from outside parties. By outside parties, we mean parties other than private bio-tech companies who wish to participate in helping produce vaccines.

It is not impossible for other parties to be able to make their own vaccine products. But the concern here is that the process of making vaccines from scratch will take time and money. Meanwhile, producing vaccines from existing vaccine formulas or bases will speed up production and distribution.

Due to the complexity that arises as a result of the conflicting interests of Intellectual Property and the interests of the public, patent registration for important inventions such as vaccine during a pandemic is considered detrimental and hinders the development of efforts to improve public health and control the COVID-19 pandemic*

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