A disagreement over who owns the patent rights to a landmark COVID-19 vaccine spilled into public view last month as Moderna and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) pressed their claims. The feud stems from a four-year collaboration on HIV and emerging infectious diseases in which three scientists at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center—director John Mascola; Barney Graham, who recently retired; and Kizzmekia Corbett, now at Harvard—worked with Moderna to design the genetic sequence that prompts the vaccine to produce an immune response. Results from this collaboration played “a major role in the development of the vaccine,” according to NIH director Francis Collins. “It’s not a good idea to file a patent when you leave out important inventors, and so this is going to get sorted as people look harder at this,” Collins added. In addition, Moderna received nearly $10 billion in US government funding for large-scale clinical trials and to increase manufacturing and delivery of vaccines. Moderna countered, with a spokesperson saying the company “all along recognized the substantial role that the NIH has played in developing Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.” But in a separate statement, the company said, “We do not agree that NIAID scientists co-invented claims to the mRNA-1273 sequence itself. Only Moderna’s scientists came up with the sequence for the mRNA used in our vaccine.” While the NIH has traditionally declined to exercise its march-in rights on technology it has funded, co-ownership of the vaccine’s patent rights would allow the US government greater say in allowing out-licensing of the technology and manufacturing rights, as well as a piece of the projected $18 billion this year—and $22 billion in 2022—that Moderna stands to earn with its only approved product.
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Moderna feud with NIH over COVID vaccine. Nat Biotechnol 39, 1481 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-021-01166-1