Pfizer, Moderna use patent power to delay local Australian COVID-19 vaccine production

August 24, 2021: The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that the Federal Industry Minister Christian Porter has found that Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, who hold the patents for the only two mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, don’t want to licence or sub-contract to a local manufacturer.

Minister Porter stated on August 20 that the plan for local production has been delayed because “this would depend on decisions by Pfizer or Moderna to build new facilities after clear signals they would not share their intellectual property (IP) with others.

“At present only two companies in the world own IP to an approved mRNA product and the likelihood of either of the existing approved IP owners licensing that IP to others to produce product, which is the basis of any shorter timeframes, is remote,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ironically, the Morrison government is backing the 20-year patents held by Pfizer, Moderna and other pharmaceutical companies at the World Trade Organisation, against India, South Africa and 55 other countries who are sponsoring a proposal to suspend these patents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is putting at risk Australia’s chance – and the global chance - to provide adequate supplies of new vaccines, treatments and other equipment as the Delta variant rages and newer variants of the coronavirus are expected to emerge.

Meanwhile, the only alternative is for Australian researchers to independently develop the mRNA technology, with CSL working to develop an influenza vaccine and Monash University with a project at the early trial stage. While this is achievable with government leadership and funding, it will take much time, and in the meantime make Australia rely on global production, distribution and pricing decisions by Pfizer and Moderna.

Vaccines based on the mRNA technology teach human cells to make a viral protein, giving the immune system instructions on how to produce antibodies to attack a virus. This mRNA technology held by Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna can also be used to develop treatments for cancer, HIV, influenza, hepatitis and other illnesses. The patent holders have their eye on these profit sources when they deny access to the technology to potential manufacturers today.

In the effort to persuade Pfizer and Moderna to directly manufacture in Australia, the NSW Berejiklian government and the Victorian Andrews government are bidding against each other. On August 21, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that high-level talks are underway between the NSW government and Moderna, based on a $15 million RNA Production and Research Network of the state’s five universities. The possible sites for an Asia-Pacific manufacturing hub are at North Ryde, Macquarie Park or Westmead.

But the concept assumes that Moderna would share its mRNA technology, which may not happen.