The case could take years to resolve.
Moderna is suing its rival Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech for allegedly copying its mRNA technology that the company said it developed years ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The case, filed in the US District Court in the state of Massachusetts, sets up a high-stakes duel between the top producers of Covid-19 vaccines, an important tool in the ongoing battle against the disease.
Moderna said that it will also file the lawsuit in the Regional Court of Dusseldorf in Germany, as part of efforts to seek unspecified “financial damages.”
“Moderna believes that Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine Comirnaty infringes patents Moderna filed between 2010 and 2016 covering Moderna’s foundational mRNA technology,” the US-based biotech firm said in a statement on Friday.
“Pfizer and BioNTech copied this technology, without Moderna’s permission, to make Comirnaty,” Moderna said.
Despite not fully reviewing the complaint, Pfizer and BioNTech said in a statement that they were “surprised” by the allegations.
“The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was based on BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA technology,” a statement said. “We will vigorously defend against the allegations of the lawsuit.”
When the news first surfaced, Pfizer shares dropped by about 1%, BioNTech US-listed shares plummeted by roughly 1.5%, and Moderna shares sank by almost 1.7%.
All about mRNA technology
Moderna, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had only been around for ten years when it pioneered the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology that allowed the Covid-19 vaccine to be developed with exceptional rapidity.
The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech shots employ mRNA technology as opposed to conventional vaccinations, which depend on delivering weak or dead forms of a virus to enable the immune system to recognise it and produce antibodies.
mRNA vaccines, in contrast, give cells the instructions they need to assemble a harmless portion of the spike protein that is present on the surface of the virus that causes Covid-19.
Cells are able to identify and combat the genuine virus after producing this spike protein, which has been heralded as a significant improvement in the creation of vaccines.
When it teamed up with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the German company was already engaged in this area of research.
When will it settle?
Moderna claimed to have started developing the technique in 2010 and to have obtained patents for its work on coronaviruses in 2015 and 2016. As a result, it was able to launch its shots in “record time” after the pandemic first struck.
According to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University, the novel coronavirus has hit roughly 600 million individuals and killed at least 6.48 million people globally since 2020.
“Moderna expected companies such as Pfizer and BioNTech to respect its intellectual property rights and would consider a commercially reasonable licence should they request one for other markets,” it said.
“Pfizer and BioNTech have failed to do so,” the firm added.
Numerous lawsuits have already been filed against Pfizer and BioNTech on the grounds that the vaccine developed by the partnership violates the patents of other businesses.
German biotech business CureVac sued BioNTech in July, alleging that the latter had breached patents covering the creation of specific mRNA molecules and sought “fair compensation.”
Moderna itself is also facing an ongoing dispute with the US National Institutes of Health over the credit for key patents relating to mRNA technology.
In the pharmaceutical sector, where patents can be worth billions of dollars and take years to resolve, these kinds of cases are not unheard of.