Johnson & Johnson, Gilead and Roche are the world’s antiviral patent leaders

Given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many are asking: who will produce a vaccine – and when? While the latter is hard to predict, PatentSight’s William Mansfield - in an IAM webinar aired earlier this week - gave some important clues as to who the key innovators may be.

There are, of course, some limitations to this analysis. It is not possible to search for recently filed patents relating to covid-19 because of the lag time between file date and publication date. However, PatentSight’s analysis was able to identify existing leaders within the field of antivirals and assess the readiness of the medical treatment system to respond to this challenge.

The search was conducted using well-known IPC-based definitions relating to antivirals, excluding technologies that use viruses and similar micro-organisms to fight other diseases like cancer.

Filing trends of patents relating to antiviral technologies reveal plateau periods followed by jumps in activity (see graph below). There are visible surges in 2002 and 2003, and again in 2015 and 2016. These coincide with the SARS and MERS outbreaks. The relatively static level of filings indicates that innovation is events led. It is likely that a similar analysis performed in the future will show spikes in the data during 2020 and 2021.

filing trends

GSK, Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co have the largest portfolios relating to antivirals (see graph below). The Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences also feature in this ranking.

However, this level of analysis can be misleading as it is easy to file for a patent. The challenge is in receiving grants for assets which cover a strong technological innovation.

In order to isolate the high-quality portfolios, a second search was carried out using PatentSight’s Patent Asset Index tool (PAI). The PAI considers the number and quality of active patents to calculate the overall strength of a portfolio.

In the revised list the two Chinese entities drop off, and Johnson & Johnson, Gilead and Roche rise to take the top three spots.  

Top 10

The companies with the highest quality assets have been strengthening and growing their portfolios over the past decade, as seen in the upward trajectory of their PAIs (see graph below). Merck & Co ranked as the top player in 2011 but has since been on a steady decline. Even GSK, which has consistently been a leader in antivirals, is falling into a downward trend.

Development over time

It is clear from these visuals that Gilead, Roche and Johnson & Johnson are the top players in antiviral innovation, and it is worth exploring their strategic position in relation to their competitors.

The graph below maps out the major companies by Competitive Impact and portfolio size. Competitive Impact is a PatentSight tool that considers the technology relevance and market coverage of a portfolio; its value is stated relative to other patents in the field, where one represents the global average.

Not surprisingly, each business included in the analysis has a portfolio with a Competitive Impact score that is significantly higher than one. Gilead’s portfolio, while smaller than Johnson & Johnson’s, is of much higher quality. Mansfield explains that Gilead’s portfolio is gaining value through an increase in the technological relevance of its assets.

strategic position

Something else to consider is the size of the antiviral portfolio in relation to the rest of an entity’s patent holdings. Nearly 50% of Gilead’s patents are related to these technologies and while it has historically had a major focus on HIV, it undoubtedly has a strong background in antiviral research (see graph below). Because of this, says Mansfield: “Gilead not only has the innovations at hand, but it also has the focus to ensure they are used in the most efficient way possible.”

The American biotech company is the only one of the top 10 players where antivirals account for more than 20% of the portfolio. Companies like Roche and Johnson & Johnson are very large, and these technologies would only play a small role in the overall business. This means that it would take a keen eye to know which technology is available to support innovation and could potentially result in capabilities and assets being overlooked.

portfolio share

IAM says:

This analysis cannot tell us who is leading in terms of developing a specific vaccine for covid-19 because of practical data limitations, but it does give insight into which players are in pole position to do so. Gilead, Johnson & Johnson, and Roche are clearly key innovators in the antiviral field, and would have the necessary technologies for this challenge.

Of course, the size and quality of a portfolio is only indicative of a company’s capabilities and potential business pursuits. A viable vaccine can come from any company with a relevant speciality.  According to the WHO, there are currently 70 candidate vaccines in development (three of which are in clinical trials), while yesterday we looked at the IP strategies being put in place at Oxford University, one of a number of research institutions where potential vaccines are being developed.

While large and small players alike scramble to find a vaccine, one announcement stands out from the rest. Earlier this week GSK broke the news that it had teamed up with Sanofi to develop a vaccine to stop the spread of covid-19. But this isn’t the really interesting bit. The key statement was that GSK “would channel any profits made from its vaccine program into increased research and development into future virus threats”. That is critical.

If there is anything to take away from this data, it’s that innovation within antivirals is highly reactive and for most it’s not a priority. Given the scale and devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic it is important that those who are best placed to do so devote time and effort into preparing for future crises.  


All data and insight were provided by PatentSight consultant William Mansfield.

Unlock unlimited access to all IAM content