Moderna and the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) are fighting over who deserves credit for inventing the main component of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine.

As the New York Times reports,

The vaccine grew out of a four-year collaboration between Moderna and the N.I.H., the government’s biomedical research agency — a partnership that was widely hailed when the shot was found to be highly effective. A year ago this month, the government called it the “N.I.H.-Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.

The dispute is about more than just bragging rights.

As the Times reports,

If the three agency scientists are named on the patent along with the Moderna employees, the federal government could have more of a say in which companies manufacture the vaccine, which in turn could influence which countries get access. It would also secure a nearly unfettered right to license the technology, which could bring millions into the federal treasury.

The NIH says that three of the scientists at its Vaccine Research Center worked with Moderna scientists to design the genetic sequence that “prompts the vaccine to produce an immune response,” and thus should be named as co-inventors on the principal patent application.

Moderna disagrees, and in a statement filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in July, claimed that its employees, and not the three government scientists, were the sole inventors.

Before the filing with the USPTO, Moderna and the NIH had been in talks for more than a year about who could claim to have made the invention. The July filing apparently came as a surprise to the NIH.

Moderna received $10 billion in US government funding for its part in developing and supplying its vaccine. According to the Times, the company “has already lined up supply deals worth about $35 billion through the end of 2022.”

Moderna has sought other patents related to its vaccine in the US and overseas, but the disputed one is apparently the most important, as it covers “the genetic sequence that instructs the body’s cells to make a harmless version of the spike proteins that stud the surface of the coronavirus, which triggers an immune response.

Activists have pressured drug companies, including Moderna, to do more to make COVID vaccines available at lower cost to poorer countries, in order to stem the global pandemic.

Zain Rizvi, a drug policy expert at Public Citizen, noted that

Patents are development monopolies, and in a pandemic it is a terrible idea to have a private corporation have a monopoly on part of a lifesaving technology.

If the NIH scientists are listed as co-inventors on the patent, then the NIH would not need Moderna’s permission to license the patented technology to others – possibly at lower rates than Moderna now offers.

Moderna publicly made the following pledge in October of 2020:

We feel a special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible. Accordingly, while the pandemic continues, Moderna will not enforce our COVID-19 related patents against those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic. Further, to eliminate any perceived IP barriers to vaccine development during the pandemic period, upon request we are also willing to license our intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines to others for the post pandemic period.

However, what if the COVID-19 pandemic is never really over?

As the Washington Post reported,

“It doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said when asked when the pandemic would be over. “I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.”

If that’s the case, will Moderna keep its pledge?