Why companies behind the most effective COVID-19 vaccines don't share the formula

Doctor in protective gloves & workwear filling injection syringe with COVID-19 vaccine.
Doctor in protective gloves & workwear filling injection syringe with COVID-19 vaccine. (Getty)

In the race to come up with an effective vaccine against COVID-19, Pfizer and Moderna have led the way. The two pharmaceutical companies managed to rapidly produce the mRNA category of vaccines, which is a type of vaccine that teaches our cells how to make a new protein, rather than trigger an immune response. The vaccine formulas have proven to be 95 per cent and 94 per cent effective, respectively.

As inoculation rollouts continue around the world, some people are questioning why the two companies that are producing the most impactful response to the virus aren't sharing their formulas with other manufacturers to get the most effective doses to as many people as possible.

Sue Horton, professor of global health economics with the University of Waterloo, says it’s a complicated matter that boils to a few factors, namely incentive and logistics.

Coming up with the successful vaccine in a short amount of time is an expensive feat, especially since Pfizer didn’t take funding from the U.S. government's private-public partnership, Operation Warp Speed. Instead the company relied on its own financial resources to produce it as quickly as possible, which was ultimately a business risk.

“If they developed it and it bombed, they would have wasted a lot of money,” she tells Yahoo Canada.

Patents on vaccines also make things complicated. On one hand they serve a purpose but they also create challenges.

Developing countries can ask to “work the patents,” which means produce the vaccines domestically. Under the Doha Declaration, if the company refuses to let developing countries produce the vaccine themselves, they can declare it’s a health emergency.

Horton says this is the general issue with all vaccines and medicines. HIV antiretrovirals, for example, are sold at tiered pricing, where high income countries pay full price, while lower and middle income countries are offered a discount for humanitarian reasons. That hasn’t happened yet with COVID-19 vaccines.

The mRNA vaccines require cold temperatures, which makes them less attractive to lower-middle income countries. And since Pfizer and Moderna are the leaders in the vaccine creation, they can charge what they want for them.

“It’s not as simple as ‘these people need it, you have to give it to them’,” she says. “If you destroy the incentives for people to develop these things, then they won’t be developed and people will be worse off. Once they’ve been developed, it’s easy to say ‘technology is cheap now, just tell us how to do it and we’ll do it ourselves.’”

The logistics around resources also comes into play. It’s not just developing countries that aren’t able to access the patent to the mRNA vaccines, which, in Pfizer’s case, requires extremely cold storage. Canada, with all its resources, doesn’t have the facilities or manufacturing capabilities to produce these types of vaccines either.

Eventually a vaccine will be produced that can be stored in a more normal temperature range, and prices will go down. Other pharmaceutical and vaccine companies, like NOVAVAX and Johnson & Johnson, are working on producing a vaccine that could be easier to distribute to lower income countries.

Amir Attaran, a professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa stresses there has never been an mRNA vaccine made and used before December, for any disease.

“I think it is extremely naive to imagine that just by sharing the manufacturing process, others could copy it in a flash,” he says. “It entirely overlooks the learning curve for a wholly new technology, and the regulatory requirements, including potentially clinical trials, that each new manufacturer would have to satisfy.”