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Research behind COVID vaccines reaps close to $1 billion in royalties for Penn

Harold Brubaker, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

Those deals were signed in 2017, a few years before COVID-19 turned the world upside down.

Estimating Penn's share of vaccine sales

Without inside information, it's impossible to know exactly how much revenue Penn is collecting from the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines because key financial details of licensing agreements typically are kept under wraps.

Moderna's Securities and Exchange Commission filings, however, provide unusual insight. The vaccine is the Cambridge, Mass., company's only revenue-generating product, which means the company must disclose details to investors.

Each quarter, Moderna reports how much it pays to Cellscript. From the beginning of last year through March 31, the total was $848 million, or 3.5% of quarterly vaccine sales. The only exception was the first quarter of last year, when it was 5%, likely because of a one-time bump — known as a milestone payment — from the initial sales.

If BioNTech has the same terms with Cellscript, then the Pfizer-BioNTech joint venture would have paid an additional $1.82 billion to Cellscript.


BioNTech did not respond to a request for details on its Cellscript license, which calls for "milestone payments of up to approximately $26 million as well as royalties in the low to mid-single digits on net sales of licensed products," according to a regulatory filing.

Experts say Cellscript likely pays Penn less than half of the royalties it receives from the vaccines.

"It's still likely to be a sizable chunk," said Jacob S. Sherkow, a law professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who specializes in intellectual property and biotechnology.

If Penn's share were as high as 40%, it would have received roughly $1 billion of the estimated $2.7 billion Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech paid to Cellscript through March 31.


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