The Perfect Enemy | 35 years of US investment in research led to development of mRNA COVID vaccines
April 10, 2024

35 years of US investment in research led to development of mRNA COVID vaccines

From 1985 to 2022, the US government invested $31.9 billion in research yielding discoveries that contributed to the design of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in 2020.

In the three decades leading up to the pandemic, the US government invested $31.9 billion in research that supported the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in 2020, $337 million of which was invested before the pandemic, finds a Brigham and Women’s–led study published yesterday in The BMJ.

The researchers searched public databases for government-funded grants on four foundational innovations that directly led to the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, including lipid nanoparticle, mRNA synthesis or modification, spike protein structure, and mRNA vaccine biotechnology from January 1985 to March 2022.

Effort involved 34 NIH research grants  

The team identified 34 research grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that were directly related to the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in 2020. In combination with other government grants and contracts, the research totaled $31.9 billion.

Of the $337 million invested before the pandemic, NIH invested $116 million (35%) in basic and translational science related to mRNA vaccine technology, while the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) invested $148 million (44%), and the Department of Defense invested $72 million (21%).

After the pandemic began, $29.2 billion (92%) of US public funds went toward buying 2 billion advance vaccine doses, $2.3 billion (7%) was spent on clinical trials, and $108 million (less than 1%) was directed to manufacturing and basic and translational science.

Overall, the government paid $18.1 billion to Moderna ($16.2 billion [89%] for vaccines) and $13.1 million to Pfizer/BioNTech (mostly for vaccines). One billion doses were set aside for international donation from Pfizer at a much lower price than those for Americans.

“Although the public funding supporting Moderna is widely recognized, Pfizer-BioNTech executives have claimed that the company did not accept any US government support to develop its vaccine,” the authors wrote. “However, Pfizer-BioNTech would not have been able to develop an mRNA covid-19 vaccine without the licensed technologies emerging from research funded by US taxpayers.”

The researchers noted the study likely underestimates the true prepandemic public investment, because it didn’t include those from other countries, foundations, or companies.

Pfizer-BioNTech would not have been able to develop an mRNA covid-19 vaccine without the licensed technologies emerging from research funded by US taxpayers.

“The development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic was a monumental scientific success and was possible because of the scientific discoveries that took place in the preceding decades,” corresponding author Hussain Lalani, MD, MPH, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a Brigham news release

But the authors called for policy reforms and follow-up on technology licenses to ensure that manufacturers are making the vaccines appropriately available to equitably support global public health. “mRNA vaccines have saved millions of lives,” Lalani said. “The substantial public investment in research that led to these vaccines should justify equitable and affordable access to these lifesaving vaccines globally.”

Public risk, private rewards

In a commentary in the same journal, Victor Roy, MD, PhD, of the Yale School of Medicine, said that while mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are a significant achievement, their development illustrates how society invested in and bore the risk of pursuing such innovation while corporate shareholders reaped most of the rewards.

Fueled largely by the global sale of their COVID-19 vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer have made more than $100 billion in global revenues, which Roy pointed out is more than 20 times the World Health Organization’s budget for 2020-21.

“Yet for a vaccine that is estimated to cost $1-3 per dose to manufacture, both Moderna and Pfizer have announced plans to charge more than $110 a dose in the US this year—a price that Moderna’s CEO Stephan Bancel has argued is ‘consistent with the value’ of these vaccines,” he wrote.