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Analysis: Pfizer Vaccine Relies on U.S. Government-Developed Spike Protein Technology

Belies Pfizer Claim Not to Have Benefited from Taxpayer Dollars

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Most of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates – including the Pfizer/BioNTech experimental vaccine – are using a spike protein technology developed by the U.S. government that could give taxpayers a say in the price and supply of a future vaccine, a new analysis by Public Citizen found. This reliance on taxpayer-funded technology belies Pfizer’s frequent claim that it has not accepted federal investments in its research.

In 2016, National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists working with academic researchers found a new way of freezing coronavirus spike proteins in the right shape. The modified protein helped produce a stronger immune response in mice than the naturally occurring protein for an earlier coronavirus.

Now, most of the leading first-generation COVID-19 vaccine candidates – including Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax – are using this publicly developed technology. The NIH protein showed early superiority in clinical trials, including fewer side effects. The availability of a stabilized spike protein also appears to have accelerated preclinical studies.

Pfizer Senior Vice President Kathrin Jansen has claimed, “We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone.”

“Pfizer, like most vaccine developers, relied on federal science and taxpayer-funded technology to improve and accelerate its vaccine project,” said Peter Maybarduk, Public Citizen Access to Medicines program director. “Pfizer overcharged taxpayers for the 100 million doses the government has purchased so far. The government can and must insist on reasonable pricing.”

“Big Pharma started on third base and thought it hit a triple,” said Zain Rizvi, a law and policy researcher in the Access to Medicines program and author of the analysis. “Public science should serve the public interest. The government should require corporations to share technology to help scale up supply around the world.”

The analysis follows promising but preliminary reports from phase 3 studies of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine. The analysis adds to a previous Public Citizen report that found the U.S. government claimed ownership on a vaccine candidate it helped develop.