It’s been a few months since Moderna and Pfizer became the first two pharmaceutical companies to release COVID-19 vaccines to the market. Since then, millions of people around the world have been vaccinated and hopes are rising that the world can get past the pandemic sometime this year.
But there is a side to this feel-good story that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention outside of IP circles. It started last October when Moderna released the following statement.
“We feel a special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible. Accordingly, while the pandemic continues, Moderna will not enforce our COVID-19 related patents against those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic. Further, to eliminate any perceived IP barriers to vaccine development during the pandemic period, upon request we are also willing to license our intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines to others for the post pandemic period.”
TL,DR: The $68B pharma giant isn’t enforcing its existing patents on the underlying vaccine technology in order to get more COVID vaccines to market.
The move was great PR for Moderna, but also points to an underlying truth about patents. The real power of IP isn’t just about protecting an idea, but instead supporting broad innovation.
First, understand that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which Moderna pioneered in 2010. mRNA vaccines are fundamentally different than traditional shots that inject entire viruses into patients in order to trigger the desired immune response, instead introducing “mRNA-1273” molecules to the body. Once inside the patient’s cells, these molecules act like computer code and instruct cells to product COVID-19 spike proteins that the immune system identifies as antigens and triggers the proper immune response. It’s using the patient’s own cells to express targeted proteins and protect themselves.
(This technology is also why the initial COVID vaccines were so quick to develop. Researchers only had to determine the correct code to deliver via this existing technology.)
Moderna has invested billions in mRNA over the years and believes that it will soon become a new therapeutic modality that can be used to treat many other conditions beyond infectious diseases. COVID accelerated mRNA’s time to market, but now that it is here – and being broadly used across the industry – expect to see a lot more treatments based on it in the years to come.
As the company said: “Moderna is proud that its mRNA technology is poised to be used to help end the current pandemic.” By opening up its innovation to all, it is ensuring that this is just the first chapter in mRNA’s history.