Oct 14, 2021 - Health

Moderna has become the world's vaccine boogeyman

Illustration of a hand wielding a syringe like a knife

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Moderna is under fire for not doing enough to vaccinate the world, particularly low-income countries — and the Biden administration is being criticized for not doing enough to force Moderna's hand.

Why it matters: Low-income countries are desperate for more vaccine, and experts warn that higher levels of global spread will increase the likelihood of a vaccine-resistant variant emerging.

Driving the news: A top Biden official publicly threatened Moderna with more aggressive government action if it doesn't voluntarily provide enough vaccines to the global initiative COVAX at not-for-profit prices, which the administration has asked it to do.

  • "Do not underestimate the resolve of the United States government in addressing these issues," David Kessler, the Biden administration's chief science officer of the COVID-19 response, said at a panel event yesterday.
  • "I think these companies understand our authorities and understand we would not be afraid to use them," Kessler added. He said Moderna has the capacity to make at least 1 billion extra doses in the short term.

State of play: Moderna has been supplying its vaccine almost exclusively to wealthy nations, the New York Times reported over the weekend.

  • Pfizer, on the other hand, has agreed to sell its vaccine at a low price to the U.S. government to donate to lower-income countries.
  • Tensions have been brewing for between Moderna and the administration for a while, but previously over booster shots.

Yes, but: Activists speaking on the panel said that it's time for the federal government to give up on Moderna voluntarily taking action, and to take much more aggressive steps to increase global vaccine capacity.

  • And it's not just activists. A group of Democratic lawmakers, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, wrote a letter to the Biden administration yesterday with a similar message, the Washington Post reports.
  • "Despite receiving huge sums of public funding from American taxpayers, Moderna has refused calls to share its technology, including from the U.S. government," the lawmakers wrote, pressing the administration for more information about the federal government's contract with Moderna and what rights it has to the company's vaccine data.

What they're saying: "We are committed to doubling our manufacturing and expanding supply even further until our vaccine is no longer needed in low-income countries," Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel recently wrote in a letter outlining the company's strategy to increase vaccine access.

Between the lines: It's unclear what rights the U.S. government has to share information on how to make the Moderna vaccine with the world, which is what some activists want it to do.

  • Kessler said that the Defense Production Act "is probably the strongest authority, and that does give the president the authority to allocate doses."
  • But redirecting doses doesn't solve the problem of the total amount of vaccine available around the globe. Sharing the vaccine recipe, on the other hand, would help more manufacturers make it.

The bottom line: "We need the Biden administration to step up, because at the end of the day ... we're not sitting across from the heads of Pfizer and Moderna," said Zain Rizvi of Public Citizen.

  • "We can't tell them what to do. COVAX can't tell them what to do .... There's a singular unique power that the U.S. government has."
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