President Joe Biden said Thursday that the United States has licensed a key technology used in today’s Covid-19 vaccines to the World Health Organization, allowing manufacturers around the world to work with the global health authority to develop their own vaccines against the virus.
The National Institutes of Health has licensed its groundbreaking stabilized protein technology to WHO and the United Nations’ drug patent pool, Biden said.
The spike protein is the component in vaccines that induces an immune response, forcing the body to fight the virus. NIH technology keeps proteins in a configuration that allows them to mount a stronger immune response. The WHO and the Medicines Patent Pool can now sublicense the technology to generic manufacturers around the world.
“We are making available health technologies that belong to the United States government, including the stabilized spike protein used in many Covid-19 vaccines,” Biden said.
The decision to share vaccine technology comes ahead of a virtual global Covid-19 summit that the United States is hosting on Thursday. The WHO said in a statement that the license would make the crucial technology accessible to people in low- and middle-income countries and help end the pandemic.
While the technology the United States shares is important, it is only one component of the vaccine and does not contain the entire messenger RNA code needed to make the injections. The NIH and Moderna, who teamed up to develop a taxpayer-funded vaccine, are currently engaged in a dispute over a separate patent for the mRNA set. Vaccines inject the mRNA code, which directs human cells to produce harmless copies of the virus’s spike protein to induce an immune response.
According to the health agency, negotiations are underway between the NIH and Moderna to resolve this dispute. The outcome of the dispute will have major implications for technology sharing. White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking to reporters in March, said the United States would likely erase the mRNA sequence if the dispute with Moderna were resolved in the NIH’s favor.
“Anything we can do, we will do,” Fauci said when asked to share the mRNA code if the NIH wins the dispute. During the same call, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said the United States would “pull the boundaries where the law allows” in technology sharing.
The WHO has repeatedly called on vaccine makers to share their know-how, but Pfizer and Moderna have refused to license the technology behind their vaccines to the Medicines Patent Pool. However, Moderna does not maintain its patents in 92 poorer countries. While Pfizer doesn’t share the technology, it does provide the US government with 1 billion doses to donate to poorer countries.
The WHO has been chasing vaccine manufacturers and setting up a manufacturing center in South Africa to produce vaccines based on the messenger RNA technology that Pfizer and Moderna use in their vaccines. South African scientists are producing generic copies of Moderna’s vaccine based on publicly available information because the biotech company is not enforcing its patents.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Moderna’s shareholders at the biotech company’s annual meeting to vote for a resolution calling for an independent study into the feasibility of technology transfer.
“If Moderna worked with us, we could submit the hub vaccine for approval at least a year earlier, which would save lives, reduce the risk of variants and reduce the economic toll of the pandemic,” Tedros said.
The United States is also contributing an additional $200 million to the World Bank’s Pandemic Preparedness Fund for a total contribution of $450 million, and an additional $20 million through the United States Agency for international development to support the deployment of Covid testing and support antiviral treatments in eight countries. The White House said it is also expanding its vaccine donations through Pfizer to include booster doses and injections for children.
The donations are a far cry from the $5 billion the White House has asked from Congress to support vaccinations around the world. Congress has declined Biden’s wider request for $22.5 billion in Covid funding due to opposition from Republicans against so much spending.
The senators reached a $10 billion Covid financing deal in April, which did not include funds for the global vaccination campaign. Republicans blocked the Senate from approving the $10 billion in a dispute over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to end a controversial policy that sent asylum seekers across the country’s border back to Mexico as a public health measure known as Title 42.