23rd April 2020

Institutions inject flexibility into IP relevant to COVID-19 vaccines and medicines

Abel & Imray

Colleague and vaccine specialist Paul Commander, a patent attorney in our Biotech team, takes a look at how some companies and institutions are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in respect of intellectual property.

The FT has published an article reporting how the larger drug manufacturers are facing pressure to share their patents in the bid to tackle COVID-19. The President of Costa Rica has brought forward a proposal to the WHO, backed by WHO partner Unitaid, which seeks to create a voluntary patent pool to allow governments or generic drug makers to manufacture vaccines, medicines and diagnostics relevant to COVID-19 at lower prices. Such an approach has been applied successfully in the past for drugs relevant to viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

In Brazil, the response to COVID-19 has gained media attention due to the downplaying of the pandemic by President Jair Bolsanaro, however in the background, Brazilian lawmakers are bringing forward proposals to allow the issuance of compulsory licences for medicines and vaccines relevant to COVID-19. The proposal would aim to temporarily suspend patents for all medical products that could be used in the fight against COVID-19 (or any future emergencies of this nature), with licences being rescinded at the end of the emergency period.

Closer to home, Oxford University Innovation (OUI), is taking a third route by seeking to offer expedited access to relevant COVID-19 IP via non-exclusive, royalty-free licences for the duration of the pandemic using a 5 point guide/policy for partners and other enterprises. OUI’s approach is particularly relevant because subjects have already started to be enrolled in a clinical trial designed to assess a coronavirus vaccine candidate (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) developed by the University’s researchers. A similar approach on access to IP relevant to COVID-19 (the Open Covid Pledge) is being taken by US universities and businesses including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Intel and Microsoft among others.

These measures show that, whilst IP is often criticised for preventing access to drugs, the patent system has the flexibility, where needed, to respond to extraordinary global health challenges such as of the kind we are currently facing.

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