Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel on Thursday shrugged off the Biden administration’s support for suspending patents for coronavirus vaccines, saying drug firms in other countries would struggle to mass-produce a rival to the blockbuster vaccine that has made his company a household name.
Speaking during a first-quarter earnings call, the head of the Cambridge biotech said he “didn’t lose a minute of sleep” after the administration said it would endorse the temporary waiver of patents to bolster vaccine production in developing nations as a way to hasten an end to the pandemic.
Although biopharma executives and lobbyists for the industry said the waiver would undermine US innovation in the pharmaceutical sector, Bancel said the move “doesn’t change anything for Moderna.”
There aren’t enough manufacturing sites or skilled workers to rapidly ramp up the supply of messenger RNA vaccines like the ones made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, he said.
“There is no idle mRNA manufacturing capacity in the world,” said Bancel, whose 11-year-old company has faced shortfalls in its European manufacturing supply chain, which includes the Swiss contract manufacturer Lonza. “There is no industry of talented individuals who are skilled in the art of making high-quality and high-purity” mRNA vaccines, he added.
He also noted that Moderna announced in October that it wouldn’t enforce COVID-19-related patents during the pandemic.
Moderna’s vaccine was the second of three cleared for emergency use in the United States, behind Pfizer’s and before Johnson & Johnson’s. More than 109 million doses of the Moderna vaccine have been administered in the country as of Thursday, compared with 134 million doses of Pfizer’s and 8.6 million of Johnson & Johnson’s.
Noubar Afeyan, a cofounder of Moderna and chairman of its board of directors, had a similar reaction to Bancel’s. He said in an interview that “government should have a very high bar on anything that stifles innovation,” but the proposed patent waiver is “a limited intervention” during a global crisis.
During the earnings call, Bancel said Moderna’s two-dose vaccine carried the company to its first-ever quarterly profit. It generated revenue of $1.73 billion during that period, which reflected three full months of its use in the United States and early international sales. Moderna also raised its forecast on COVID-19 vaccine sales for the full year to $19.2 billion from $18.4 billion, reflecting advance purchase deals.
Moderna’s share price is more than fivefold what it was in March of last year, a surge that has made billionaires of several early investors. The stock slumped 6.2 percent Wednesday after Biden’s announcement, to $162.84, and fell another 1.4 percent Thursday, closing at $160.50.
Moderna, which had 640 employees in 2018, has more than doubled its workforce to 1,400. With its headquarters in Cambridge and a manufacturing plant in Norwood that is doubling in size, it now ranks among the biggest homegrown biopharma companies in the state.
Dr. Mani Foroohar, an analyst in Boston with SVB Leerink who participated in the earnings call, was not surprised by Bancel’s blasé reaction to a possible suspension of patent protections. Giving someone a patent “doesn’t mean you can make a vaccine,” he said, just as “handing someone a recipe doesn’t allow them to replicate a Michelin restaurant.”
Other factors may have contributed to Bancel’s lack of concern, said Foroohar. The patents covering the technology behind the two authorized mRNA vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, and similar ones in development, are extraordinarily complicated. It’s likely, he said, that companies are infringing on each other’s patents, perhaps unwittingly, but aren’t enforcing them because they want to avoid long and costly litigation.
In a note to investors, Foroohar seemed less concerned about patent protections than about Pfizer’s dominance over Moderna in sales of COVID-19 vaccines, especially outside the United States. Although Moderna — which has received about $6 billion from the government to make its vaccine and provide doses — announced $19.2 billion in projected sales, that lags well behind the projection of $26 billion that New York-based Pfizer predicted for its vaccine in 2021.
“The company is playing catch-up outside of the US,” where Pfizer “holds a dominant market position,” Foroohar wrote.
In endorsing a waiver of intellectual property protections on Wednesday, the Biden administration sided with international efforts to increase vaccine production. The United States had been a major holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal to suspend such protections, which could give foreign drug makers access to zealously guarded trade secrets about how vaccines are made. Biden has been under pressure from the international community and his party’s liberal flank to loosen the protections, given surging COVID-19 cases in India and South America.
Katherine Tai, the US trade representative, said Wednesday in a statement that “this is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”
The new position immediately drew fire from the biopharma industry, both nationally and in Massachusetts. Advocates for such firms said it would hurt the very industry that produced three US vaccines in record time.
Stephen J. Ubl, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said the move “flies in the face of President Biden’s stated policy of building up American infrastructure and creating jobs by handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery.”
Waiving patent protections would “forever change the innovation system that has made the US the world leader in the development of new medicines,” said Zachary Stanley, executive vice president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.
And Daphne Zohar, founder and chief executive of PureTech Health, a Boston-based biotech, said the Biden administration’s proposal represented a “sound bite solution” to the complicated challenges of inoculating the world.
She seemed particularly concerned that the move would set a precedent that could discourage people from investing in risky biopharma startups, and upend the drug-making industry.
“Already we saw one lawmaker tweeting that Congress should go after insulin next,” she said in an e-mail. “Are they going to systematically strip [intellectual property] protections from one therapy after another?”
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.