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Moderna accused of supplying vaccines only to rich nations

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After developing a breakthrough vaccine with the financial and scientific support of the U.S. government, Moderna has shipped a greater share of its doses to wealthy countries than any other vaccine manufacturer, according to Airfinity, a data firm that tracks vaccine shipments.

About one million doses of Moderna’s vaccine have gone to countries that the World Bank classifies as low income. By contrast, 8.4 million Pfizer doses and about 25 million single-shot Johnson & Johnson doseshave gone to those countries.

Of the handful of middle-income countries that have reached deals to buy Moderna’s shots, most have not yet received any doses, and at least three have had to pay more than the United States or European Union did, according to government officials in those countries.

Thailand and Colombia are paying a premium. Botswana’s doses are late. Tunisia couldn’t get in touch with Moderna.

Unlike Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, which have diverse rosters of drugs and other products, Moderna sells only the Covid vaccine. The Massachusetts company’s future hinges on the commercial success of its vaccine.

“They are behaving as if they have absolutely no responsibility beyond maximizing the return on investment,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moderna executives have said that they are doing all they can to make as many doses as possible as quickly as possible but that their production capacity remains limited. All of the doses they produce this year are filling existing orders from governments like the European Union.

Even so, the Biden administration has grown increasingly frustrated with Moderna for not making its vaccine more available to poorer countries, two senior administration officials said. The administration has been pressing Moderna executives to increase production at U.S. plants and to license the company’s technology to overseas manufacturers that could make doses for foreign markets. Moderna is now scrambling to defend itself against accusations that it is putting a priority on the rich.

On Friday, after The New York Times sent detailed questions about how few poor countries had been given access to Moderna’s vaccine, the company announced that it was “currently investing” to increase its output so it could deliver one billion doses to poorer countries in 2022. The company also said this past week that it would open a factory in Africa, without specifying when.

Moderna executives have been talking with the Biden administration about selling low-cost doses to the federal government, which would donate them to poorer countries, as Pfizer has agreed to do, the two senior officials said. The negotiations are continuing.

In an interview on Friday, Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, said “it is sad” that his company’s vaccine had not reached more people in poorer countries but that the situation was out of his control.

He said that Moderna tried and failed last year to get governments to kick in money to expand the company’s scant production capacity and that the company decides how much to charge based on factors including how many doses are ordered and how wealthy a country is. (A Moderna spokeswoman disputed Airfinity’s calculation that the company had provided 900,000 doses to low-income countries, but she didn’t provide an alternate figure.)

Nearly a year after Western countries began sprinting to vaccinate their populations, the focus in recent months has shifted to the severe vaccine shortages in many parts of the world. Dozens of poorer countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, had vaccinated less than 10 percent of their populations as of Sept. 30.

In August, for example, Johnson & Johnson faced rebukes from the director general of the World Health Organization and public health activists after The Times reported that doses of that shot produced in South Africa were being exported to wealthier countries. Biden administration officials are especially frustrated with what they see as Moderna’s lack of cooperation, because the U.S. government has provided the company with critical assistance. (NYT)

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