Pharmaceutical company Moderna has announced that it is suing rival vaccine makers Pfizer and BioNTech, claiming the two partners infringed on its patents by developing its Covid-19 vaccine administered to hundreds of millions worldwide.
The lawsuits set up a high-stakes showdown between the leading manufacturers of Covid-19 vaccines, which are a key tool in the fight against the virus that has devastated the world.
“We believe that Pfizer and BioNTech illegally copied Moderna’s inventions and have continued to use them without permission,” said Shannon Thyme Klinger, Moderna’s chief legal officer.
Pfizer is based in the US, like Moderna, while BioNTech is a German company. The Pfizer-BioNTech joint takeover is officially called ‘Comirnaty’.
The patent infringement lawsuits were filed in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the Dusseldorf Regional Court in Germany, according to a statement issued by the biotech firm on Friday.
“Moderna believes that Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 Comirnaty vaccine infringes patents Moderna filed between 2010 and 2016 covering Moderna’s core mRNA technology,” it read.
“This groundbreaking technology was instrumental in the development of Moderna’s own mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, Spikevax. Pfizer and BioNTech copied this technology, without Moderna’s permission, to make Comirnaty.”
Pfizer said it did not receive the lawsuit and declined to comment further, while BioNTech did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We are filing these lawsuits to protect the groundbreaking mRNA technology platform that we pioneered, spent billions of dollars creating, and patented over the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Modern.
“This foundational platform, which we began building in 2010, coupled with our proprietary work on coronavirus in 2015 and 2016, enabled us to produce a safe and highly effective COVID-19 vaccine in record time post-pandemic.”
Ms Bancel said the company continues to use the technology to develop treatments for influenza and HIV, as well as autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases and rare forms of cancer.
The lawsuits do not seek the removal of the rival vaccine from the market or an injunction on future sales, according to a statement from Moderna. Instead, the company is seeking compensation from Pfizer and BioNTech for using two key features of its mRNA technology, he added.
Moderna said it had started building the technology in 2010 and patented the coronavirus work in 2015 and 2016, allowing its injections to be launched in “record time” after the pandemic.
The mRNA technology used in Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech inoculations differs from traditional vaccines, which rely on injecting weakened or killed forms of a virus to allow the immune system to recognize it and generate antibodies.
Instead, mRNA vaccines instruct cells to build a harmless part of the spike protein found on the surface of the virus that causes Covid-19.
After creating this spike protein, cells can recognize and fight off the actual virus, hailed as a breakthrough in vaccine development.
Key tool against the deadly pandemic
The injections have repeatedly been the subject of false claims that they are dangerous, but health authorities say they are safe and effective.
The virus has killed at least 6.48 million people worldwide since 2020 and sickened nearly 600 million, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
In addition to death and suffering, the disease has led to a reshaping of life that ranges from a change in rules about working from home to a mix-up of supply chains and the workforce.
Moderna said it pledged in October 2020 not to enforce its Covid-19-related patents while the pandemic continued, but changed that stance less than two years later as the fight shifted gears.
“Moderna hoped that companies like Pfizer and BioNTech would respect their intellectual property rights and would consider a commercially reasonable license if they applied for one for other markets,” he said.
“Pfizer and BioNTech have not done so,” the firm added.
These kinds of lawsuits are not unheard of in the pharmaceutical industry, where patents can be worth billions of dollars and can take years to resolve.
– With AFP