Moderna’s missteps undermine US vaccine diplomacy

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The news of the Covid omicron variant casts uncertainty over the holiday season, making financial markets jittery and Americans nervous about travel restrictions, the efficacy of existing protections and other potential repercussions.

Yet one consistency remains: The world will continue to depend on the companies that produced the COVID vaccines. Thus far, the manufacturers of these vaccines have almost uninformedly expressed a note of cautious optimism. 

Moderna has been a notable outlier. Even in the very early stages of omicron when so little is known, the company has already pledged to have a vaccine ready in a matter of weeks 

Given Moderna’s recent track record, governments would be wise to proceed with caution around this bravado. After an initial honeymoon period following the development of their vaccine, Moderna has faced a period of increased public scrutiny, revealing questionable decision-making and priorities that are puzzling many.  

This isn’t just problematic for the company. It hurts America’s standing on the world’s stage at a time when we need to project strength and stability. Instead of riding high on the historic wave of innovation unleashed by the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, the Biden administration is publicly admonishing Moderna for failing to increase its global vaccine supply.

Consider the events that have unfolded since December 2020 when Moderna became the second company to obtain FDA authorization for its vaccine. Despite receiving $2.5 billion from American taxpayers, Moderna has opted not to follow the lead of other COVID vaccine manufacturers who have offered their product at a reduced rate. The company’s president flatly stated, “We will not sell it at cost.” 

The times have certainly been good for the company. Moderna’s chairman, Noubar Afeyan, is estimated to be worth approximately $5 billion dollars. Earlier this fall, Afeyan joined Moderna board member Robert Langer and an early investor named Timothy Springer on Forbes Magazine’s list of 400 richest Americans. It is a success story propelled by the widespread use of Moderna’s vaccine and fueled by the American taxpayer.  

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with making a profit. But in the context of a global pandemic that has battered lower-income countries, selling a vaccine predominantly to wealthier nations is not a good look. For example, a mere six percent of Africa is fully vaccinated, and only five of its countries are on track on track to vaccinate 40 percent of their populations by year-end. Its health authorities are pleading for help in addressing a 275 million shortfall of vaccines. 

Facing mounting pressure from the Biden administration and protests outside its CEO’s Cambridge home, Moderna agreed to sell 110 million doses of its vaccine to the African Union. A welcome development to be sure, but described as, “a drop in the ocean” by one African health expert 

Back at home, Moderna is embroiled in a patent dispute with the National Institutes of Health, which was integral to developing the science underpinning mRNA vaccine technology. While BioNTech and other companies have paid the NIH to license the technology, Moderna has refused. With over $6 billion flowing from the U.S. government to Moderna to produce and distribute its vaccine, it’s hard to grasp the logic at work here. One can only assume it is a fight for outright control. If the NIH achieves co-inventor status, it will give the federal government more authority to intervene over disputes of vaccine accessibility. 

The messy situation was becoming untenable for Moderna. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins called their initial refusal to cede co-inventorship status a “serious mistake,” citing, the “major role” the government played in the development process. 

It is not too late for Moderna to turn things around, but the warning signs are flashing. In this populist era, there is diminished patience for companies that appear to reject the basic responsibilities of corporate citizenship. 

The omicron variant’s appearance helps highlight that the world needs Moderna to be more than a one-product company. The globe will benefit from the development of new treatments — like its mRNA injection that regrows heart tissue after cardiac arrest.  

To achieve this, Moderna will need to learn how to behave in a way that shows it understands the bigger picture and the context in which it operates. Let’s hope they do so. 

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity, and prosperity for all Americans.

Tags coronavirus vaccine Moderna COVID-19 vaccine mrna vaccines Vaccine diplomacy

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