President Joe Biden said on Thursday that the United States had granted a license to the World Health Organization for a key technology used in current Covid-19 vaccines, which would allow manufacturers around the world to work with the global health agency to develop their own vaccines against the virus.
The National Institutes of Health has licensed its breakthrough stabilized protein technology to the WHO and United Nations drug patent pool, Biden said.
The spike protein is the component in vaccines that induces an immune response, prompting the body to fight off the virus. NIH technology keeps proteins in a configuration that allows them to mount a stronger immune response. WHO and the Medicines Patent Pool can now sub-license 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 that is used in many Covid-19 vaccines,” Biden said.
The decision to share vaccine technology comes ahead of a virtual global Covid-19 summit the United States is co-hosting on Thursday. The WHO, in a statement, said 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 include the full messenger RNA code needed to perform the injections. The NIH and Moderna, which worked together to develop a taxpayer-funded vaccine, are currently locked 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’ spike protein to induce an immune response.
Negotiations between the NIH and Moderna to resolve this dispute are ongoing, according to the health agency. The outcome of the dispute will have major implications for technology sharing. White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci in a March call with reporters said the United States would likely clear the mRNA sequence if the dispute with Moderna was resolved in favor of the NIH.
“Anything we can do, we will do,” Fauci said when asked to share the mRNA code if the NIH won the dispute. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, on the same call, said the United States would “push the limits where the law allows us” on technology sharing.
The WHO has repeatedly called on vaccine makers to share know-how, but Pfizer and Moderna have refused to license the technology behind their vaccines to the Medicines Patent Pool. Moderna, however, does not enforce its patents in 92 poorer countries. Although Pfizer does not share the technology, it does provide the US government with 1 billion doses to donate to poorer countries.
The WHO has been rounding up vaccine makers, setting up a manufacturing hub 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 shareholders at the biotech company’s annual meeting to vote in favor of a resolution calling for an independent investigation 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 tests and 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 requested from Congress to support vaccinations around the world. Congress failed to pass Biden’s broader request for $22.5 billion in Covid funding due to opposition from Republicans who are against spending so much.
The senators struck a $10 billion Covid funding deal in April, which did not include money for the global vaccination campaign. Republicans blocked the Senate from passing 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 in as a public health measure, known as Title 42.