As pressure mounts on drugmakers to do more to increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines, a group of about a dozen scientists, medical providers, and public health advocates held a demonstration on Beacon Hill Wednesday outside the home of Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel.
They placed a twelve-foot-tall skull and bone sculpture on the brick sidewalk to symbolize millions of COVID-19 deaths they believe are the result of global vaccine inequities. Citing other reports, they claimed Moderna is derailing the global vaccination campaign by refusing to share the vaccine “know how” that could help manufacturers and governments scale up production of the shots to vaccinate the world more quickly.
“Living in Boston, we all have a lot of friends in biotech and pharma, and a lot of them are very much concerned with the state of the world and global vaccine equity,” said Dr. KJ Seung of Harvard Medical School, one of the demonstrators, in an interview. “It is really disappointing to see a company [that] seems to be completely unconcerned.”
The group called on the Cambridge biotech to work with the government to ramp up manufacturing in the US, cooperate with contract manufacturers globally, and sell the vaccine without profit to low- and middle-income countries.
Colleen Hussey, a spokeswoman for Moderna, shared a statement from Oct. 2020 in which the company said it would not enforce its patents related to COVID-19 “while the pandemic continues,” and that it would be willing to license its intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines “for the post pandemic period.”
The New York Times reported last week that the Biden administration and the World Health Organization have been unsuccessful at convincing Moderna and Pfizer to license their messenger RNA vaccine technology to manufacturers that would provide doses to low- and middle-income countries.
The Boston demonstration was focused on Moderna, but Seung said there is a similar argument to be made about Pfizer. Seung said he thought Moderna had a more glaring obligation, though, since the federal government bankrolled the development of its vaccine.
Pfizer last week announced it would sell an additional 500 million doses to the US at the not-for-profit price, to be donated to countries in need. Moderna has agreed to sell its doses at the “lowest tiered price” so they can be donated — 34 million doses in the fourth quarter of this year and up to 466 million next year.
But donating vaccines isn’t enough if there’s a shortage that delays deliveries, said Dr. Joia Mukherjee, an associate professor of global health at Harvard Medical School and chief medical officer of Partners In Health. She said vaccine scarcity is the result of policy decisions that favor pharmaceutical companies, rather than a limit on production capacity.
Demonstrators also staged a protest Wednesday in Washington, D.C., at the home of Ronald Klain, the White House chief of staff. They called on the Biden administration to use its authority and budget to increase annual mRNA vaccine production capacity to 8 billion doses, donate 100 million doses per month to other countries, and force Moderna and Pfizer to share their trade secrets with other manufacturers.