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Vaccine wars

Vaccine wars


A truce between rival pharmaceutical companies is over. Moderna is suing Pfizer/BioNTech over claims it used patented technology to make its Covid vaccine.

Pharmaceutical companies haven’t always had the best reputation.

“Keep your eye on this issue: the pharmaceutical industry in the United States has never lost a political struggle, Stephen – never lost. They are so powerful they’ve got 1,500 lobbyists in Washington D.C, they make enormous campaign contributions. They never lose, and the result is they can charge you any price they want, any day of the week.”

Bernie Sanders campaign video 

“Big pharma”, as the industry’s biggest companies are sometimes known, was often in the news for its aggressive business tactics and accused again and again of putting profits before people.

“Well, in the meantime, a lot of people get their prescription drugs and have a bit of sticker shock, but wait til you hear this. The 32-year-old head of a pharmaceutical company, the face of global outrage this morning because he raised the price of a life saving drug overnight by 5000%. It’s a controversial decision and he is defending it.”


But the Covid-19 pandemic showed the industry’s potential for public good, and provided an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to scrub their public image.

They even began collaborating with their rivals in an attempt to find a vaccine, and the results were unprecedented, rapid, and life-saving.

“And now to that breaking news from AstraZeneca overnight. The pharmaceutical company says its vaccine may be 90% effective in late stage trials, making it the third drug maker now to produce a highly effective vaccine.”

ABC News

In October 2020 Moderna, one of the leading pharmaceutical companies, even said that it wouldn’t be enforcing its Covid vaccine patents during the pandemic. 

This meant it wouldn’t deter others from developing similar vaccines – especially ones that were targeting low-and-middle-income countries.

But the era of pharmaceutical collaboration may be over. 

“We’ve got developing news in the world of pharma. Moderna says it is suing rival vaccine maker Pfizer and its partner BioNTech over the technology used to make its COVID 19 vaccines.” 


Last week, Moderna filed a surprise lawsuit in the Massachusetts District Court in the US, and a court in Germany. They say that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine relies on technology that Moderna developed and patented.

“Moderna, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was an innovator in the messenger RNA vaccine technology, which teaches human cells how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response. That enabled unprecedented speed in developing the Covid-19 vaccine.”


Both Pfizer and Moderna produced vaccines using messenger RNA – or mRNA, which was a largely experimental technology until the Covid pandemic accelerated vaccine trials.

But Moderna’s lawsuit isn’t about mRNA on the whole. It’s about two specific technologies.

Firstly, Moderna says Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine has the exact same chemical modifications to the mRNA as its patented Spikevax technology. These chemical modifications essentially prevent the body from having an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

The other part of the lawsuit hinges around something called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs. 

“What Moderna is focusing on is the delivery method. And that is what, if you’ve ever heard the term lipid nanoparticles, that’s what was used to help deliver that vaccine formula into the arms of individuals. Now that is the crux of what Moderna is suing for saying that they developed this over time and overcame the problem and solved the problem of how to deliver the vaccine formula into the body without it spurring a, basically like a response, immune response that was negative.”


Moderna says it developed LNP technology when it created a vaccine for the MERS coronavirus. They say that this technology was central to the speedy rollout of Covid vaccines.

Pfizer and BioNTech are yet to countersue, but they did provide a statement:

“Pfizer/BioNTech has not yet fully reviewed the complaint, but we are surprised by the litigation given the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was based on BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA technology and developed by both BioNTech and Pfizer.”

Pfizer and BioNTech statement

They said they will “vigorously defend against the allegations of the lawsuit”.


Pharmaceutical lawsuits are notoriously slow, and it might be years before we get a verdict on this case – if it even goes to court. 

So what exactly is Moderna trying to achieve?

Moderna isn’t seeking to take Pfizer or BioNTech’s vaccine off the market, but it does want a share of the profit. And that profit is sizeable.  

“Last year Moderna and Pfizer reported $54 billion in Covid vaccine sales combined, Pfizer selling twice what Moderna did – the highest one-year total for a pharmaceutical product in history.”


The lawsuit may be complicated by the fact that Moderna previously promised not to enforce its mRNA patents over the course of the pandemic. That statement may be legally binding – and the pandemic isn’t yet over.

Moderna says it updated its pledge in March 2022, saying that it expected rich countries to respect its patents and licences. The lawsuit specifies that the company is not seeking damages in countries where vaccine supplies are still a problem.

If Moderna were to succeed, Pfizer and BioNTech would have to pay royalties on some of its vaccine sales.

And the patent is about more than just Covid.

“The stakes are high. mRNA technology is being used to develop drugs for everything from HIV to autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases to cancer.”


By protecting its patents, Moderna is trying to maximise its future revenue as mRNA technologies develop.

And it’s not the first company to try this tactic, either. 

Pfizer and BioNTech – and Moderna – are already facing multiple lawsuits from companies who say their technology infringes on their patents. Moderna is also in the midst of a legal dispute with the US government over who should be credited in a Covid patent.

As the pandemic moves onto a new phase, it’s likely this lawsuit won’t be the last.

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Patricia Clarke.