The COVID-19 pandemic pits mankind against a virus in a long-term struggle not seen in at least 100 years. Researchers all over the world have been working tirelessly to develop and improve treatments and vaccines against the disease.

Collaboration and sharing of information play a significant role in suppressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Immense research and product development investment continue apace on a global level all with the aim of developing new technology. These research projects provide new information on, inter alia, drugs, vaccines and disinfectants as well as IT diagnostics and smart furniture. Fortunately, as a result of collaboration, there has been some recent promising news about effective vaccines that may start to become available in just a few months.

Information on coronavirus collected centrally in EPO database

The European Patent Office (“EPO”) is committed to sharing information on important Covid-related technologies. To this effect, the EPO has compiled on its website an interesting collection of data sets of patent applications and patents relating to the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). The data sets are arranged in three broad themes: (1) vaccines and therapeutics, (2) diagnostics and analytics, and (3) informatics.

Search queries compiled by EPO examiners are available to facilitate review of patent publications relating to coronaviruses. Under the three broad themes, the search queries are divided into smaller sections, so that publications can be searched for, e.g., candidate therapies for COVID-19, various types of testing for the virus and modelling of viral infections.

The database provides easy access to the most recent innovations relating to coronaviruses. However, one should recall that patent applications normally become public only after 18 months from the filing of the priority application, unless the applicant has requested early publication of the application. The search queries are implemented via the Espacenet service provided by the EPO, but the search queries are also available as a spreadsheet from which one may download the queries to be used in another service.

The EPO also has compiled statistical data on search results. For example, the highest number of patent applications relating to drugs against coronavirus have been filed in the United States (with almost 4300 applications), Europe ranks second (with nearly 2500 applications) and China third (with about 200 applications). Applicants and inventors ranking highest in the numbers of filed applications are also listed on the website. In addition, virologists and their work are presented in the form of video interviews. Indeed, interviews of seven leading scientists in vaccine research, diagnostics and therapeutics are published on the EPO website.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (“WIPO”) also has been active in the fight against COVID-19. In collaboration with the University of Auckland, New Zealand, it has provided a COVID-19 Glossary, which contains close to 150 terms relating to the COVID-19 pandemic in ten languages. The glossary is also linked to WIPO's PATENTSCOPE database, which allows patent publications containing these terms to be located easily.

From IP licences to IP pledges

The degree of sharing of information relating to COVID-19 is quite exceptional, particularly at such a global scale. Patents, like other intellectual property rights, are exclusionary rights; in other words, patent holders have the right to prohibit others from utilizing the invention disclosed in the patent. In this way, the patentee can enjoy a competitive advantage over other actors in the field. The worldwide crisis, however, has brought together many inventors, companies and patent owners to share information in a new way. Measures also have been taken by governments to secure the availability and utilizability of the latest scientific developments.

The scientific magazine Nature recently published an article providing various channels for distributing, utilizing and licensing IP information. These IPR 'pledges' may be commitments made by a single organization, for example, a company or a university, or it could involve coordinated efforts among multiple organizations.

The conditions of the pledges vary, but typically IPR pledges differ from an ordinary IPR licence in that the user does not necessarily have to negotiate separately with the IPR holder for permission to use the right. It is also possible to leave out licence fees from the IPR pledges altogether. In this way, the work of researchers in fighting coronavirus is facilitated when time and resources are not consumed in licensing negotiations. For example, researchers may be able to utilize information from patents directly in their own research.

Notwithstanding the benefits described above, public IPR pledges involve certain limitations. Typically, pledges are limited to research on the new coronavirus (SARSCoV-2) during the COVID-19 pandemic and for a limited time thereafter. In this way, during the pandemic, it is possible to focus on the development of products and equipment which are essential during the crisis, but IPR owners are still left with the possibility of an economic benefit afterwards.

Knowledge creates new knowledge. It is only as a result of intensive research and product development that drugs, vaccines, analytic tests and devices can be developed, and the COVID-19 pandemic stopped. This flow of information is enabled by patent publications and other IPR knowledge, and many IP professionals are part of this fight.

Sources:

https://www.epo.org/news-events/in-focus/fighting-coronavirus.html

https://wipopearl.wipo.int/en/covid19

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41587-020-0682-1