“Every crisis brings about innovation" – how the vaccine race is transforming biopharma IP

Top practitioners say that the covid crisis has transformed biopharma IP policy debates and highlighted the importance of innovation

The latest edition of IAM's annual Global Leaders has now been published. In it, the world’s foremost private practice patent experts reflect on their professional journeys to date, while offering insights and guidance into career development, practice management and patent industry trends. 

Among the various topics covered, we asked our strategic elite to consider the impact that the global race to develop and distribute covide-19 vaccines might have on the biopharma space. Here is what they had to say.

Greater respect for “strange, absent-minded people in white lab coats”

A common thread around responses to this topic was a hope that achievements in this area would boost public perceptions of the life science industry as a whole. “I hope the public will see the pharmaceutical industry in a better light and realise how important the amazing work that the researchers do is to their own lives,” enthuses Dominick Conde of Venable. “With covid-19 the new vaccines and medicines have been miraculous.”

Sherry Knowles of Knowles IP Strategies agrees whole-heartedly that “the innovators who rapidly identified treatments for covid-19 should be honoured for their service”. Plougmann Vingtoft’s Kim Wagner goes even further and wonders whether this global collaborative effort might inspire a generation? “These people have really worked around the clock for the past 18 months to save the world from death and destruction,” he point out. “With the current focus on covid-19 vaccines and the inevitable focus on the effects of climate change, I am confident that more young people will be drawn to pursue careers in science. I think scientists will become (if they are not already) the new celebrities, and no longer merely considered strange, absent-minded people in white lab coats."

A fresh focus on accessibility

Of course, not all coverage of vaccine developments was celebratory. The rapid development sparked a call for companies to waive their rights to the vaccine in the interests of accessibility. However, there were questions over whether such a move would succeed in its stated aim. “While accessibility is undoubtedly a big issue in this regard, incentives to the development of vaccines are also playing a vital role,” argues Jiancheng Jiang of Peksung Intellectual Property. “There is likely a need for an adjustment of the patent system in response to the current pandemic. Any changes might be both in procedure and in substantive law. However, the proposal for a so-called patent waiver does not sound like a positive move in this respect, as it would not contribute to accessibility nor provide more incentives.”    

COHAUSZ & FLORACK’s Arwed Burrichter is even more forthright. “Despite public calls for a waiver for covid-19 vaccine patents, the development of effective covid-19 vaccines in such incredibly short time frame was, to a large extent, made possible by the existing patent system, which incentivises innovation and allows pharmaceutical companies to recoup their investments when successful.” However, he is alive to the possibility that public discussion around covid-19 vaccine patents may increase awareness of compulsory licences, which courts in Europe grant under exceptional circumstances only.

Moving the dial on vaccine research

As well as prompting big talks on the nature of patent protection, the new vaccines look set to have a lasting impact on R&D in this area. “The new mRNA vaccines will likely usher in a whole new class of protective medicines against a range of infectious diseases and perhaps even cancer,” predicts Knowles. “Companies have also identified new pharmaceutical tablet drugs  at quickfire pace that may be used in the future for numerous diseases.”

“Every crisis brings about innovation,” agrees Kari Simonsen of Onsagers, reporting that already a number of patent applications have been filed that relate to vaccine technology and diagnostics – in particular to covid-19. “I expect that several other vaccines against other viruses will be developed using the technology from the coronavirus vaccines.” 

Andrzej Witek of WTS Patent Attorneys is encouraged by what he describes as a tremendous acceleration in the development of effective vaccines, drugs and their regulatory approvals. “Until the discovery of the covid-19 vaccines, all technologies related to identifying the virus threat (eg, rapid genetic or immunological diagnostics) or prevention of the infection itself (eg, mechanical barriers in the form of masks, sluices or disinfectants) certainly gained an even higher priority. It seems that now that we have effective vaccines, these directions of development will continue in order to effectively protect humanity against further pandemics, which unfortunately are inevitable.”

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