Lacks context: The fact that the CDC holds patents is taken out of context. The CDC licences technology developed at the CDC to third parties, and in some cases, this technology is partly patented. While the CDC receives royalties from licensees, this doesn’t mean that the CDC makes money from selling vaccines.
FULL CLAIM: “The CDC is not an independent agency. It is a vaccine company […] The CDC owns over 20 vaccine patents. It sells about $4.6 billion of vaccines every year”.
This claim comes from a quote that is attributed to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer who founded the anti-vaccine advocacy group Children’s Health Defense. Kennedy made a similar claim in a 2017 press conference. However, the very first mention of this claim–and the verbatim quote shared in the Facebook post–cannot be traced anymore, but it has been repeated in social media posts since at least 2016.
The CDC spent $4.6 billion to provide childhood vaccines for free; the CDC doesn’t sell vaccines
The claim by Kennedy that “the CDC sells about $4.6 billion of vaccines per year” is false, as the CDC doesn’t sell vaccines. Instead, the CDC buys them in order to provide the vaccines to children free-of-charge. The federally funded Vaccines for Children program provides free vaccines to children who wouldn’t otherwise be vaccinated because of financial difficulties. The direct costs of routine childhood immunization for the 1994-2013 birth cohort was estimated at $107 billion. In 2019, the CDC’s budget for “Vaccines for Children” was $4,598 million, i.e. $4.6 billion. This figure—which is the amount spent by the CDC to provide vaccines, not the amount made by vaccine sales—is possibly the source of the $4.6 billion that Kennedy cited.
CDC research has resulted in innovations to improve vaccines; these were patented to ensure that the technology can be made available to others
The CDC does indeed hold patents, but the claim misleads readers through the lack of context. The reason why the CDC holds patents is explained by the CDC’s Technology Transfer Office:
“Our goal is to support CDC’s mission by facilitating the development and transition of CDC innovations into products that benefit the health of Americans and people around the world.”
In the course of their work, researchers at the CDC may develop new technologies, which could be of interest to companies. To “advance the CDC’s public health mandate”, these technologies are disseminated to others. As the CDC’s Technology Transfer Office explains, one way to do this is to make the technology available to the private sector through licenses. A license is a legal agreement by which a patent owner promises not to take action to exclude the licensed party from making, using, or selling a potential invention. The company can then use this technology to develop or make a product, such as a vaccine.
Some licensed technologies are protected through patents. The reason for filing a patent is that without patent protection, someone else could patent the technology instead and prevent others from using it. Since 2013, the US has moved from a “first-to-invent” to a “first-to-file” system. The new “first to file” system ensures that whoever files the patent application first gets the patent.
Some of the CDC’s technologies available for licensing do relate to vaccine candidates. These are openly listed on the CDC’s website, as are the patents and patent applications. As of February 2021, the website lists 57 technologies available for licensing that are related to vaccines and therapeutics candidates. Some of these technologies are connected with more than one patent. However, the patents do not all cover entire vaccines, the patents instead cover technologies used in the process of developing or manufacturing vaccines.
While the CDC doesn’t sell vaccines, it does receive payments from the companies who acquire licenses to their technologies. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Office of Technology Transfer accepts royalty payments for licenses on behalf of the CDC. According to the NIH Office of Technology Transfer, the CDC received nearly $17 million in total royalty payments in 2019, the last year for which information is available. That is quite a lot less than the $4.1 billion claimed by Kennedy.
The CDC is a U.S. federal agency, not a vaccine company
Kennedy also claimed that the “CDC is not an independent agency”, but “a vaccine company”. CDC’s mission is stated as the following:
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serves as the national focus for developing and applying disease prevention and control, environmental health, and health promotion and health education activities designed to improve the health of the people of the United States.”
The CDC is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The main source of its funds is from the Federal Budget, annual appropriations are determined by the U.S. Congress. In other words, the CDC is not a “vaccine company” as Kennedy claimed, but a federal agency under the U.S. government.
While the CDC is a federal agency, it does receive money from other parties. Some have expressed concern at whether this could compromise the agency’s independence. One way in which other parties can fund the CDC is through the CDC Foundation. This non-profit was created by the U.S. Congress to establish collaborations with philanthropic and private-sector resources to support the CDC.
In 2019, the CDC Foundation received more than $87 million in contributions. The CDC reported that in 2020, it received $13 million as “CDC Foundation Gifts”. These are conditional gifts that are tied to a specified project. The CDC Foundation lists the funded projects, the funding partners and the funding amount. The corporations, foundations, and organizations who donated to the CDC Foundation in 2019 are listed on their website, and do include pharmaceutical companies as well as the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a non-profit organization which also conducts research to develop vaccines including against Ebola and Marburg viruses.
In addition to money from the CDC Foundation, the CDC receives direct gifts. In 2020, these amounted to $10 million. The CDC “has delegated authority from the Assistant Secretary of Health, HHS, to accept outside gifts”:
“Specifically, Section 231 of the Public Health Service Act (42 USC 238) authorizes acceptance of unconditional and conditional gifts ‘…for the benefit of the Public Health Service or for the carrying out of any of its functions.’”
The direct gifts are either unconditional or conditional, tied to a specific project. The funding amounts, projects and donors are also disclosed by the CDC.
In the past, however, CDC’s recommendations used to include the following disclaimer, e.g. in the recommendations for hepatitis C screening published in 2012:
“CDC, our planners, and our content experts wish to disclose they have no financial interests or other relationships with the manufacturers of commercial products … CDC does not accept commercial support.”
As pointed out in a feature article in the British Medical Journal published in 2015, this disclaimer stands in contrast to the funding the CDC receives directly and through the CDC Foundation. The CDC website now acknowledges public-private partnerships and funding received through the CDC Foundation, and the updated hepatitis screening guidelines published in 2020 no longer include the financial disclaimer. However, according to the feature article, direct or indirect industry funding may have, at least in the past, affected the CDC’s decisions—some controversial recommendations were associated with conditional industry funding. While the CDC now acknowledges industry support, the extent to which this support affects organizational decisions is currently hard to determine.
In summary, the claims made by Kennedy are inaccurate. Rather than selling vaccines, the CDC spends $4.6 billion per year to buy and distribute vaccines for children. And although the agency holds patents, it licenses both patented and unpatented technology to third parties. Finally, the CDC is a U.S. federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services, not a vaccine company.
By February 2021, Kennedy’s Instagram account was permanently removed for “repeatedly sharing debunked claims”. His Facebook account, sharing much of the same vaccine misinformation, remains active.
- 1 – Katzelnick et al. (2017) Antibody-dependent enhancement of severe dengue disease in humans. Science.
- 2 – Crill et al. (2012) Sculpting humoral immunity through dengue vaccination to enhance protective immunity. Frontiers in Immunology.
- 3 – Smith et al. (2012) Recommendations for the identification of chronic hepatitis C virus infection among persons born during 1945-1965. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
- 4 – Schillie et al. (2020) CDC Recommendations for Hepatitis C Screening Among Adults. MMWR Recommendations and Reports.