After Long Delay, Moderna Pays N.I.H. for Covid Vaccine Technique

The company has forecast Covid vaccine sales of $5 billion for 2023.

The N.I.H. tends to be uneasy about aggressively asserting legal rights to its work, experts said, a stance that some activists believe hurts taxpayers who face high prices for medicines developed with government funding and research. In the case of the dispute over the spike-protein technique, experts said, the N.I.H. was in a particularly tricky position because of its parallel fight over who ultimately invented the vaccine.

That put more of the onus on Dartmouth and Scripps to encourage the government and Moderna to reach an agreement. For those institutions, the potential licensing fees represented a significant opportunity to pour money into the very same kinds of research that revealed how to modify the spike protein in the first place.

“We’re doing it not to benefit shareholders,” said Kim Rosenfield, Dartmouth’s director of technology transfer. “This money is going to go right back into the kind of research that enables further lifesaving drugs and into educating people.”

For a university of Dartmouth’s size, she said, the payments were “game-changing.” Royalty payments for an earlier drug developed in part at Dartmouth helped the university set up the research program where Dr. McLellan worked, Ms. Rosenfield said. Now the payments for Dr. McLellan’s findings could help cultivate future discoveries.

The university said that it had already received $117 million from vaccine makers that had reached earlier agreements to license the spike technique.

Dr. McLellan had been working at Dartmouth to respond to an outbreak of an earlier coronavirus — one that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS — when he developed the trick for modifying the spike. The spikes on the surface of that virus, too, were squirmy and unstable, taking one form before invading a cell and another afterward.

Dr. McLellan’s team, working with Dr. Barney Graham at the N.I.H. and Andrew Ward at Scripps, knew that the spike needed to be locked in place if it was to elicit the strongest possible immune response. After several attempts failed, they zeroed in on a particularly loose joint of the spike and added two stiff amino acids, a tweak that made the entire thing more rigid.

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