The Army’s New Vaccine Could Help Poor Countries End COVID-19

Joe Biden's refusal to lift COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property restrictions has protected Big Pharma profits and worsened the pandemic. But a new army-developed vaccine isn't covered by such restrictions — making it easily shareable with the entire world.

US president Joe Biden gives remarks on his administration's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Progressive lawmakers are calling on President Joe Biden to take advantage of the fact that the US Army’s new pan-coronavirus vaccine recipe is not subject to intellectual property restrictions and share the information with the world.

According to the army, early research shows that the spike ferritin nanoparticle (SpFN) vaccine, developed by scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, can “provide broad protection” against COVID-19 and future variants. The SpFN vaccine must still undergo Phase 2 and 3 of human trials, but if it proves successful, distributing the new vaccine around the globe could be a game-changer in the fight against the COVID pandemic.

While the vaccines that are widely available in the United States have proven safe and effective at preventing hospitalizations and death — even against new variants — manufacturers like Moderna and Pfizer have put profits first, prioritizing sales to wealthy countries while vigorously opposing efforts to allow poorer countries to manufacture their own versions of the vaccines. Meanwhile, COVID variants like Delta and Omicron have emerged and wreaked havoc across the globe.

Last week, thirty members of the Progressive Caucus wrote a letter to Biden demanding that the government take steps to share the new army vaccine globally and prioritize distribution over profits.

“Should the new SpFn vaccine emerging from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research that promises resistance to all variants of COVID-19 prove safe and effective, we ask that the United States and any industry partner put the vaccine’s intellectual property in the public domain and actively share its production technology with manufacturers throughout the world to ensure adequate supply, access, and fair pricing,” they wrote. “Additionally, we ask that any doses produced by industry partners be sold at cost of production.”

As the progressive lawmakers note in their letter, “Vaccine manufacturers in wealthy countries have largely failed to share vaccine technology and adequately expand production for low-income countries, while rich countries have often hoarded the supplies that exist.”

Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), one of the statement’s cosigners, reiterated the letter’s demands in an interview with us.

“The failure to establish global vaccine equity has paved the way for the Omicron and Delta variants,” said Khanna. “Efforts are underway to develop a vaccine that can help protect against future strains, but as we have learned during the course of this pandemic, developing vaccines is only half the battle. We must also ensure that all countries have access to lifesaving vaccine technology, and we must support global manufacturing efforts as much as possible.”

So far, global vaccine distribution has been handled through a public-private partnership model. The operation, COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), was set up in April 2020 by public-private ventures along with the World Health Organization and UNICEF. COVAX purchases doses of COVID vaccines with funds donated from wealthy nations and delivers them to poor nations. By the end of 2021, the initiative, which relies heavily on US support, had delivered less than half of the doses it had promised. The Biden administration has vowed to help COVAX obtain more than a billion doses by 2023.

The Biden administration announced last May that it would support waiving intellectual property for the vaccines at the World Trade Organization under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, which would allow poor nations to manufacture their own vaccine doses.

But since then, the waiver has not materialized. The Biden administration hasn’t clarified whether it supports a TRIPS waiver proposal from India and South Africa currently under consideration at the WTO, which would waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, diagnostic kits, medicines, personal protective equipment, and ventilators so the information could be shared widely. The proposal has been opposed by the United Kingdom and Germany.

The progressive lawmakers’ letter asks Biden to “publicly clarify whether the United States supports the specific proposal presented by South Africa and India, along with over 100 other countries.”

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines relied on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology developed with federal dollars, and Moderna’s jab was even cocreated by scientists from the National Institutes of Health.

US public health officials possess Moderna’s vaccine recipe, including step-by-step instructions for how to make it and exact ingredient amounts. One contract between Moderna and the Health and Human Services Department gives the government “contractually defined ‘unlimited rights’ to use, reproduce, and share knowledge funded under the contract,” according to a post last year in Health Affairs.

But the Biden administration has been reluctant to share this information with the world. In October, a White House official told the Washington Post that the administration did not in fact have “unlimited rights” to Moderna’s vaccine recipe, saying that experts were basing their analysis “on a part of a redacted contract that is public [and] that has been taken out of context.”

The Walter Reed vaccine could resolve these issues. Developed over nearly two years, the vaccine promises efficacy against all variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as previous SARS viruses.

Animal testing results earlier this year were positive and, in December, the vaccine concluded Phase I of human trials, meaning small groups of individuals have been given the shot to test its efficacy, safety, and dosage.

Most importantly, the Walter Reed vaccine is being developed directly by public agencies, so there won’t be the same intellectual property issues involved in sharing it as there are with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

It’s possible the vaccine’s origins might not be a selling point to everyone. Recent census data shows more than a third of Americans who have resisted getting vaccinated say they don’t trust the government, and citizens in many countries have ample reason to distrust the US military. That said, the federal government already helps fund research and development on virtually every drug that gets approved for sale in the United States, and has spent tens of billions of dollars to fund COVID vaccines and treatments.

Questions remain about how the new vaccine will be manufactured and distributed — which is why progressive lawmakers are preemptively calling on the government to take steps now to make the vaccine IP and technology public and ensure the vaccines are sold at cost.

“The government has developed this vaccine, and should ensure that any licensing agreements related to broad production and distribution entail terms that optimize for the public interest,” David Segal, the executive director and cofounder of Demand Progress, told us. “So that could mean nonexclusive licensure, licensure contingent on global access and affordability, and so on.”

Segal added, “We developed this vaccine and should guarantee its widespread use without convoluted waiver processes, price gouging, or other impediments that will slow or prevent its use at scale.”