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A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech booster vaccine being prepped at the Gimbel Gymnasium on Dec. 15, 2021.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Biotechnology company Moderna is suing its competitors Pfizer and BioNTech, claiming that the latter infringed on its patent on mRNA vaccine technology developed by Penn Medicine researchers.

Moderna, which had filed a patent to use the technology years before the COVID-19 pandemic, claimed that Pfizer and BioNTech violated its intellectual property by developing COVID-19 vaccines using this technology during the pandemic.

Research by Perelman School of Medicine faculty members Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó in 2005 into mRNA technology had paved the way for Moderna’s and Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic. Over 12.6 billion COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in 184 countries across the world, according to Bloomberg.

Weissman and Karikó both told Science Magazine that they had filed a patent in 2012 — six years before Moderna’s patent on mRNA technology.

Moderna filed two lawsuits against Pfizer and BioNTech on Aug. 26, one in Massachusetts, where Moderna is based, and one in Germany, where Pfizer is headquartered. 

“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’s Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

Experts on litigation said that, regardless of the outcome, the lawsuit would not affect access to the COVID-19 vaccines, according to The New York Times

Weissman and Karikó’s research contributions to the mRNA technology earned them recognition, accolades, and awards by multiple national and international organizations. They received the VinFuture Grand Prize, valued at $3 million, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in January. TIME also named Weissman and Karikó among its Heroes of the Year in 2022.

Penn has received around $750 million in royalties for pioneering research into mRNA technology which proved integral in the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. The royalties will be used to fund scientific and medical research at the University, Senior Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli told The Philadelphia Inquirer in June.