Moderna Is Fighting Pfizer, BioNTech over mRNA Patent

Moderna says it was willing to licence the tech but now wants to be repaid by rivals for vaccine revenue generated since then.

Photo of a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
Photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eugene Oliver via Public Domain Mark 1.0

Sign up for smart news, insights, and analysis on the biggest financial stories of the day.

Harry Truman once said, “’It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” After one pandemic, a medical breakthrough, and millions of lives saved, Moderna does care who gets the credit, and considers itself to be the deserving one. 

The biotech player plans to take its COVID vaccine peers to court on Tuesday, arguing that Pfizer and BioNTech infringed on two of its patents to develop their mRNA COVID vaccines.

Patent Drop

The mRNA technology has been a medical breakthrough and a catalyst for further innovation. According to the European Patent Office, 2,300 mRNA-related patents were filed as of 2021 — and nobody holds more than Moderna with 96 of them. Two of those are at the center of Tuesday’s court case, heard by the UK’s High Court, as well as a similar case on pause in the US: The first pertains to mRNA vaccines designed to combat respiratory viruses and the second focuses on how mRNA vaccines are delivered.

The legal battle hinges on two key questions — the first is the efficacy of Moderna’s patents. In the US trial, Pfizer and BioNTech alleged that a similar delivery-focused patent filed was “unimaginably broad.” The second question asks: When exactly did the pandemic end? Moderna initially vowed in October 2020 that it would overlook IP infringements until the pandemic was over. The World Health Organization declared the end of its “global health emergency” in March of last year, but Moderna contends that the crisis ended about a year earlier in wealthier countries. Moderna also says it was willing to license the tech on “commercially reasonable terms” — and now wants to be paid back by rivals for vaccine revenue generated since then.

Winning the case would potentially open up an important revenue stream for the company, just when it needs it most:

  • In 2022, Comirnaty, the COVID vaccine co-developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, generated a combined $56 billion in sales for the two companies. Last year, Cominarty generated $4.3 billion for BioNTech and $11.2 billion for Pfizer.
  • Earning back-paid royalties on those sales would be a major boon for Moderna, whose Spikevax is its only product on the market. Last year, sales fell to $6.7 billion, down from $18.4 billion in 2022.

Future Proof: “The sales of these products have fallen off a cliff so it’s all about past damages,” Pinsent Masons IP lawyer Christopher Sharp told the Financial Times. That being said, it could be about the future, too — given the promise of mRNA technology to treat all types of medical quandaries. Charlie French, an intellectual property lawyer at London law firm Bristows, told the FT: “Potentially, this is much broader than Covid vaccines or vaccines in general.”