Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic senators demand to know how US pharmaceutical companies plan to share vaccine technology as COVID-19 devastates India

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Moderna chose the firm Recipharm to produce part of its vaccine against COVID-19 in France. GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP via Getty Images
  • Senate Democrats are asking vaccine makers what their plans are to share intellectual property.

  • The questions come as developing nations struggle to inoculate their populations against COVID-19.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

In the next few weeks, more than half of Americans will have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. In much of the developing world, if current trends hold, people will be lucky to get a shot by 2022 - all the more reason, a group of US senators say, that pharmaceutical companies should be sharing their know-how and hastening the end to this global health crisis.

Sharing intellectual property, "such as vaccine recipes and manufacturing information... could drastically expand vaccine development and access," states a letter to Pfizer, sent Wednesday and signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, Tammy Baldwin, Jeff Merkley, and Christopher Murphy, all Democrats.

In their letter, the lawmakers ask the pharmaceutical giant whether it has shared any of its proprietary knowledge with a group set up by the World Trade Organization for that purpose - and, specifically, whether it plans to partner with any companies in India to produce its highly effective mRNA vaccine.

The lawmakers sent identical letters to both Johnson & Johnson and Moderna.

Crisis in India spurs calls for action

India, which manufactures the AstraZeneca vaccine, has seen a major spike in COVID-19 cases, in part due to limited vaccination, as well as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's poor handling of the crisis. Doctors in India have accused Modi of being a "super spreader" for holding major political rallies in the weeks preceding the latest surge, with a record 357,700 new cases reported on Wednesday. The government has also been faulted for failing to secure enough emergency oxygen for local hospitals.

But there is little doubt that, the failings of governments aside, wider production of COVID-19 vaccines could ameliorate the pandemic and help limit the spread of new, potentially more dangerous variants.

Developing nations, as well as former world leaders and Nobel laureates, have been urging President Joe Biden to sign off on a WTO waiver that would allow countries such as India and South Africa to put US intellectual property to use without fear of repercussion. Industry groups have argued that such a waiver would discourage private innovation.

Moderna has said it will not enforce its vaccine patents, although that does not appear to be sufficient reassurance for WTO members to begin unauthorized production.

Sharing intellectual property would not immediately address the current wave of infection, but Suhaib Siddiqi, the company's former director of chemistry, told the Associated Press that a modern factory would be able to begin producing the company's vaccine in less than four months.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration, which along with the European Union has thus far declined to back the campaign for a WTO waiver, said it would begin sharing its supply of AstraZeneca doses with India as soon as possible.

US pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, say they will be drafting a response to the lawmakers' questions.

"We are committed to the health and safety of people worldwide and look forward to replying to the senators' letter," Lisa Cannellos, a spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson, told Insider.

A spokesperson for Pfizer confirmed receipt of the letter but declined to comment.

The lawmakers have requested that answers be provided no later than May 11.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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