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Covid-19 vaccine companies wage legal patent war

New mRNA technology changed the game for Covid-19 vaccines. But who has rights to the groundbreaking development is coming into focus now in a new lawsuit.

(CN) — Two major players in developing the coronavirus vaccine are facing off in federal court: Moderna filed a lawsuit Friday accusing Pfizer of copying its proprietary technology. 

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine Comirnaty, Moderna claims, infringes the technology Moderna patented and used to develop its own vaccine, Spikevax. Both vaccines use mRNA, or messenger RNA, in groundbreaking developments that changed the fight against Covid-19

Filed in Massachusetts, where Moderna is headquartered, the 39-page complaint describes Moderna’s early focus on mRNA at a time that “many doubted that this technology could ever be used to treat or prevent disease.” The name Moderna combines “modified” and “RNA.” 

“Before the emergence of Covid-19, unlike Moderna, neither Pfizer nor BioNTech had ever developed an mRNA vaccine for a coronavirus,” the complaint states.

Unlike previous vaccines derived from the DNA of an existing virus, mRNA is genetic material that gives cells the necessary blueprints to make proteins. Scientists have known about mRNA since the 1960s, but its fragility compared to DNA made it difficult to work with, as it’s easily destroyed by a small amount of contamination. 

Moderna’s complaint says that the pressure to combat the global crisis led it to divert resources from other projects so that it could develop a vaccine quickly. 

At the height of Covid-19’s grip in 2020, Moderna said it would not enforce the patents it had filed between 2010 and 2016. The decision aimed at helping vaccine distribution, particularly in middle- and low-income countries. 

The company reiterated that promise in March of this year, and its lawsuit states that it does not relate to patents generated during Moderna’s collaboration with the National Institutes of Health during the pandemic. The same does not go, however, for direct competitors — though Moderna is not seeking damages, which are unspecified, before March 8, 2022, nor for sales in middle- and low-income countries.

In a statement, Pfizer and BioNTech wrote they were “surprised” by the complaint. 

“Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was based on BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA technology and developed by both BioNTech and Pfizer,” the companies said. “We remain confident in our intellectual property supporting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and will vigorously defend against the allegations of the lawsuit.” 

Moderna brought a separate suit Friday in the Regional Court of Düsseldorf, Germany, where BioNTech is based. In the United States, the company is represented by attorneys from the firm WilmerHale. 

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