Comment: Vaccine maker must do more to improve global supply

Previously, Moderna focused on supplying wealthier nations. A pledge to Africa is only a start.

By Adrienne Fraley-Monillas / For The Herald

As Americans approach our second holiday season in this pandemic, we have many reasons to be thankful.

Mass immunization has helped cut covid-19 cases in half since the summer peak. Nearly 200 million Americans are vaccinated, and we have ample supply on hand. Now is the time to scale up our global efforts and help the rest of the world get relief from the disease.

That is especially true since we are already seeing new variants like omicron emerge as a result of low vaccination rates in the developing world. To recover from this pandemic once and for all, manufacturers must deliver billions of doses to low- and middle-income countries. Moderna has emerged as the weakest link in that process.

Moderna has promised to deliver 500 million doses to COVAX, the United Nations’ affordable vaccination program. But the company has reportedly balked at making additional commitments due to concerns about its bottom line. The Biden administration has pushed back, issuing an official warning that Moderna needs to increase its contributions. David Kessler, the White House’s chief science officer, even called the company’s actions “unconscionable.”

Moderna’s financial concern is especially problematic because the federal government gave it $6 billion dollars to bring its vaccine to market; far more government funding than Moderna’s competitors received. Before the pandemic, this Massachusetts-based outfit was obscure, with no approved products and no stable revenue stream. Moderna’s vaccine has been a giant windfall for the company and its senior executives.

As the company’s vaccine proceeded through the approval process, its stock soared. And senior executives cashed in, selling their shares at opportune moments. Moderna’s executive stock sales exceeded its competitors’ by orders of magnitude. A former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission called the timing “highly problematic.”

Moderna is now slated to build a multi-million dollar headquarters in Boston. In October, Forbes listed the company’s chairman, co-founder, and one of its early investors as new arrivals on the annual list of the 400 richest people in America. That co-founder, Noubar Afeyan, could attribute his new billionaire status to Moderna stock sales alone, having sold more than $1.4 billion’s worth since the beginning of the pandemic. Not a bad return for a single medical product.

Moderna and its executives are not shy about their profit-centered approach. The company has refused to sell its vaccine at cost. Despite being more reliant on government funding than its competitors, Moderna also does not pay the U.S. government royalties for using the spike protein patent it used to develop its vaccine. Many other companies, like Germany’s BioNTech, which developed its covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, do.

Moderna’s vaccine price for low- and middle-income countries far exceeds what it charges higher-income countries, according to an analysis by the non-profit advocacy group Global Citizen. The New York Times reports countries such as Botswana and Colombia are paying twice what the U.S. paid per dose; and they’re the lucky ones who were able to receive any of Moderna’s supply at all. While other manufacturers have distributed their vaccine more evenly, Moderna has supplied 97 percent of its vaccines to wealthy nations.

Moderna’s focus on wealthy nations poses a serious threat to our ability to eradicate the virus for good. As of October, just 4.4 percent of Africa’s population was fully vaccinated. The new omicron variant has made it clear that in a globalized society, low vaccination rates anywhere pose problems everywhere.

Moderna has announced a deal with the African Union to send them 110 million doses. This is a welcome first step, but the company has a long way to go to rebuild trust. Just last month, Dr. Ayoade Alakija, head of the African Union’s vaccine delivery program, described Moderna executives’ attitude as “we’re here to make money.” One deal and one good press cycle can’t undo that perception. Only a sustained change in behavior and a new focus on getting more doses administered globally can do that.

America has been at the forefront of vaccine development and deployment. Now it’s time for Moderna to be a good corporate citizen. It faces a simple (if not easy) choice: either share its vaccine with the developing world more widely and at a cheaper price, or wear the label “profits over people.”

As things stand, one company’s misguided approach threatens our nation’s standing in the world — and the health of billions.

Adrienne Fraley-Monillas is an Edmonds City Councilmember. She is an active volunteer in the community, serving at the Edmonds Senior Center, her parish, and as a volunteer guardian for seniors and individuals with disabilities.

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