By Bob Herman
The National Institutes of Health may own intellectual property that undergirds a leading coronavirus vaccine being developed by Moderna, according to documents obtained by Axios and an analysis from Public Citizen.
Why it matters: Because the federal government has an actual stake in this vaccine, it could try to make the vaccine a free or low-cost public good with wide distribution, if the product turns out to be safe and effective.
The big picture: The NIH mostly funds outside research, but it also often invents basic scientific technologies that are later licensed out and incorporated into drugs that are sold at massive profits. The agency rarely claims ownership stakes or pursues patent rights, but that appears to be different with this coronavirus vaccine.
- “We do have some particular stake in the intellectual property” behind Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine, NIH Director Francis Collins said during an Economic Club interview in May.
Driving the news: New evidence shines light on the extent of NIH’s involvement.
- NIH and Moderna have researched coronaviruses, like MERS, for several years, and signed a contract this past December that stated “mRNA coronavirus vaccine candidates [are] developed and jointly owned” by the two parties. The contract was not specific to the novel coronavirus, and it was signed before the new virus had been sequenced.
- Separately, four NIH scientists have filed for a provisional patent application entitled “2019-nCoV vaccine,” according to disclosures in a pending scientific paper. Moderna scientists co-authored that paper, but none are listed as vaccine co-inventors.
- That makes it clear “the government and the public have a stake” in the coronavirus vaccine, said Zain Rizvi, a health law and policy researcher at Public Citizen. “The vaccine would not exist without the intellectual contributions of federal scientists.”
What they’re saying: NIH said in a statement that its scientists created the “stabilized coronavirus spike proteins for the development of vaccines against coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2,” and the government consequently has “sought patents to preserve the government’s rights to these inventions.”
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In this day and age, understanding bacteria and viruses and developing vaccines are national security issues. In my view sizable part of every country’s defense budget should be spent in these pursuits rather than making tanks and other weapons.
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