Moderna on Friday filed twin lawsuits in US federal court and in Germany against rivals Pfizer and BioNTech, alleging they infringed on the company's patents for the messenger RNA, or mRNA, technology that forms the basis of the COVID vaccines.
In a statement, Moderna accused the two companies of infringing on patents it had filed between 2010 and 2016 by copying the technology in order to develop their own vaccine.
"We are filing these lawsuits to protect the innovative mRNA technology platform that we pioneered, invested billions of dollars in creating, and patented during the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic," Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement.
One lawsuit was filed in federal court in Massachusetts, while a second was filed in regional court in Düsseldorf.
In October 2020, Moderna pledged not to enforce its COVID-related patents during the coronavirus pandemic. "We feel a special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible," the company said in a statement that has since been deleted from its website.
In March of this year, Moderna updated that pledge to limit it to 92 low- and middle-income countries, but said it would protect its intellectual property in other territories given vaccine supply was no longer limited in many parts of the world.
Moderna said on Friday that it was not seeking to remove the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from the market given the continued pandemic needs, but the biotech company wants damages or compensation for the alleged infringement in the non-pledged countries.
"We believe that Pfizer and BioNTech unlawfully copied Moderna's inventions, and they have continued to use them without permission," Moderna Chief Legal Officer Shannon Thyme Klinger said in a statement.
Representatives for Pfizer told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement, "Pfizer/BioNTech has not yet fully reviewed the complaint but we are surprised by the litigation given the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine was based on BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA technology and developed by both BioNTech and Pfizer."
"We remain confident in our intellectual property supporting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and will vigorously defend against the allegations of the lawsuit," they said.
In a statement online, BioNTech said their "work is original, and we will vigorously defend against all allegations of patent infringement."
The mRNA COVID vaccines deliver genetic instructions to human cells so they make coronavirus spike proteins themselves, which then sensitize the immune system to spikes and thus protect it from a future infection by the actual virus.
Moderna alleges its rivals copied two features: a chemical modification to the vaccines that makes sure it doesn't stimulate a bad immune response when the mRNA is introduced into the body, and an approach to encoding a full-length spike protein lipid nanoparticle formulation for a coronavirus.
The company said that when COVID first struck, they pivoted and began using this technology to work with the US government to try to formulate a vaccine. The first clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine began on March 16, 2020, just two months after the genetic sequence for the COVID-19 virus was published.
Moderna said both Pfizer and BioNTech lacked similar mRNA experience when the pandemic began, and that these companies at first tried other routes to develop vaccines.
"Ultimately, however, Pfizer and BioNTech discarded those alternatives and copied Moderna's patented technology," the lawsuit reads.
In 2021, Moderna made $17.7 billion in sales of COVID vaccines, while Pfizer sold $36.7 billion of shots worldwide.
In March, Moderna projected it would sell at least $19 billion of vaccines in 2022, while Pfizer estimated $32 billion in sales.