WASHINGTON — Researchers studying next-generation vaccines to fight an evolving Covid-19 threat are running into problems getting existing vaccines to use in their research.
Because Pfizer and Moderna hold the patents for the current vaccines, researchers would likely have to get the companies’ permission to use them for research into products like nasal or pan-coronavirus vaccines. Right now, Pfizer isn’t sharing its vaccines for research purposes, a spokesperson confirmed to STAT. Moderna didn’t comment when we asked.
Pfizer’s stance is legal and in line with the company’s commercial interests, said Ana Santos Rutschman, a professor of law at Villanova University.
“If you use this thing that has been patented, what you’re doing doesn’t matter. Even if you’re trying to cure cancer, the law is pretty rigid,” she said.
But some university researchers argue the posture slows global progress toward more effective vaccines in the future, especially since the United States has already wasted tens of millions of doses of the Covid-19 vaccines.
Yale University virologist and immunologist Akiko Iwasaki has designed a study of nasal vaccines against Covid-19, which she argues could provide better protection against infection and transmission than shots alone. The ideal study would be conducted on subjects that have already had a primary vaccine series, to simulate real-world scenarios. She inquired with Pfizer about obtaining some vaccine to use in her study of nasal vaccines, but has not received any.
“In order for us to develop a better vaccine, we need a comparator. For that reason, everyone who’s doing research in this area is in the same boat, we don’t have access to do a comparison,” Iwasaki said.
Iwasaki brought the issue up briefly at the White House’s summit on the future of Covid vaccines on July 26, and presidential science adviser Francis Collins said at the time that he “would not have thought of that” hurdle.
California Institute of Technology professor Pamela Bjorkman said her lab has had similar troubles obtaining existing Covid-19 vaccines that would otherwise be discarded in order to research a vaccine candidate that could provide protection against a variety of Covid-19 variants.
“Whatever policy prevents using such vials does a great disservice to global efforts to develop new and improved vaccines,” Bjorkman said.
When asked whether Pfizer has provided any vaccines for research purposes, spokesperson Sharon Castillo said, “We are not accepting or reviewing applications for possible clinical research that studies the Covid-19 vaccine.”
Another Pfizer spokesperson also said the company has its own “extensive studies” of the vaccine underway, and will continue to share information from those studies as it becomes available.