Moderna refused China’s request to reveal vaccine technology

Moderna has refused to cede the basic intellectual property behind the development of its breakthrough Covid-19 vaccine to China, leading to a breakdown in negotiations over its sale there, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

The Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company has rejected Beijing’s request to hand over the recipe for its messenger RNA vaccine due to trade and safety concerns, said two people involved in the negotiations that took place between 2020 and 2021. The vaccine maker still says it’s “impatient”. to sell the product in China.

The mRNA vaccine technology used by Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer provides longer lasting and higher levels of protection than the inactivated vaccine technology used by Chinese manufacturers. Several Chinese pharmaceutical companies are rushing to develop an in-house alternative to mRNA, but are struggling to cope with the emergence of more infectious variants.

A person close to Moderna’s team in Greater China said the company had ‘abandoned’ earlier efforts to gain access to the Chinese market, due to Beijing’s demand to hand over the technology as a prerequisite for sale in the country. .

To date, Beijing has offered foreign manufacturers of Covid-19 vaccines two routes for distribution in China, subject to regulatory approval: complete technology transfer to a domestic drugmaker or establish a manufacturing plant in China. with a local partner, while maintaining control. of the underlying technology. Moderna was pressured into taking the first option.

The German group BioNTech has reached an agreement with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical to conduct clinical trials and market its vaccine in 2020, which allows it to retain control of the intellectual property. As part of this partnership, Fosun agreed to provide a factory that would manufacture up to 1 billion doses per year.

In contrast, Shanghai-based Everest Medicines Group struck a deal to access Canadian biotech company Providence Therapeutics’ mRNA vaccine candidate, which involved a full technology transfer.

Beijing has not granted any regulatory approval for the vaccines.

Moderna management was unwilling to hand over the vaccine recipe to a Chinese partner because of reputational damage if the local partner missed manufacturing, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

Moderna has fiercely protected its intellectual property around the world, saying handing over patents would do little to solve supply constraints. Talks in Italy for technology transfer to local manufacturing sites also fell through, but Moderna said it lacked the capacity to oversee it.

China has not approved any mRNA products for therapeutic use, and mass production of this type of vaccine is more complex than existing inactivated vaccines made in China by Sinopharm and Sinovac.

In recent weeks, Moderna has signaled its willingness to restart talks with China. Its chief medical officer Paul Burton said this month: “We would certainly be very keen to work with China if they felt there was a need for a vaccine there.”

Burton’s comments came days after US President Joe Biden proclaimed the “pandemic is over”, wiping more than $10 billion off the market value of major vaccine makers, including Moderna.

Moderna told the Financial Times: “We are not currently engaged in procurement negotiations with China. We are open to discussing with countries their Covid-19 vaccine supply needs.”

Industry insiders have observed that the company’s drive to reopen talks with China, the last remaining major economy without mRNA injection, has been driven by weak demand for the vaccines in the hottest countries. wealthy where she first targeted sales.

According to Airfinity, a data company that tracks vaccine shipments, Moderna shipped a greater share of its vaccines to high-income countries than the other three major vaccine makers, a strategy that has earned it billions of dollars in revenue. profits. More than 86% of Moderna’s bites were delivered to high-income countries, compared to 74% for BioNTech/Pfizer, 63% for Johnson & Johnson and 19% for AstraZeneca.

Slowing demand has plagued all major coronavirus vaccine makers, but with the Covid-19 vaccine its only approved product, the pressure on Moderna’s management is particularly acute, according to people familiar with the matter.

Additional reporting by Jamie Smyth in New York

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