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The patent feud between Moderna and the U.S. could have implications for the world

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than 164 million doses of the Moderna vaccine have been shot into the arms of Americans. Now, the drugmaker is feuding with the federal government about who gets credit for the genetic technology behind the shot. In patent filings, Moderna has asserted its scientists were solely responsible. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health, who spent years working alongside Moderna's team, say they've been left out. Now, the dispute could have global implications for the manufacture and distribution of the lifesaving vaccine.

Science writer Brendan Borrell chronicled the saga of the vaccine's development in his book "The First Shots." He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

BRENDAN BORRELL: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So our understanding of the kind of origin story of this technology is that NIH worked alongside private companies - right? - alongside Moderna to develop the vaccine. So what did that look like, and what exactly is Moderna claiming here?

BORRELL: The collaboration began in 2017. This group of vaccine researchers at the NIH basically started working with Moderna on HIV and with emerging infectious diseases, which have often been kind of a market loser for the vaccine world. I mean, most of the time, these emerging diseases, they arise and they vanish before you have anyone to test them on or to even - to roll out a product to.

So the researchers at NIH, they really liked Moderna because, unlike other pharmaceutical companies, the CEO, Stephane Bancel, he wanted to go after infectious diseases. And he and Barney Graham, the researcher at the Vaccine Research Center, they inked out a plan to basically run a pilot project where they would go after emerging infectious disease and prove to the world just how fast they could roll out vaccines. They entered into this collaboration with the hope that Moderna would actually bring something to the market. They did not expect to kind of lose the rights to it.

CORNISH: Is that what Moderna would like? Help us understand their claims.

BORRELL: Moderna claims that they independently came up with the design for the coronavirus vaccine and that NIH simply helped them test it.

CORNISH: This fight could determine how widely Moderna's mRNA technology is licensed and deployed around the globe. Can you describe the stakes? What does that mean?

BORRELL: Basically, by asserting that the vaccine is fully Moderna's, the NIH has no ability to sort of march in and demand that, say, the vaccine be manufactured by another company abroad. I think there's bigger issues here, too, which is that, you know, this vaccine was developed thanks to the basic biomedical research infrastructure we have in the United States paid by taxpayers. And I think we want some of the money. Moderna expects to earn $15 billion at least this year from the coronavirus vaccine, and some of that money needs to go back to basic research.

CORNISH: We're at the start of this dispute. As somebody who has done a lot of reporting, what are you going to be looking for or listening for as all of this gets untangled?

BORRELL: I think right now the question is, will legal action be taken? There have been filings in the U.S. patent court. Moderna said one thing. The NIH said the other. We're still a long way off for this being resolved. I mean, what's interesting to me is that Pfizer has paid to license this technology from the NIH. Moderna is holding its ground. So they are the last holdout.

CORNISH: Why do you think that is?

BORRELL: The company has a history of - it's basically been a patent filing machine throughout its existence. You know, this is a company that spent 10 years without developing a product, and it's finally able to reap some of the gains. And, you know, I think they feel very protective of that.

CORNISH: Brendan Borrell is the author of "The First Shots" - the story of Operation Warp Speed. Thank you for your time.

BORRELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.