Viruses, Vaccines and IP

As scientists across the globe are frantically trying to devise a vaccine to protect us against COVID-19, we thought we would take a brief look back at the development of vaccines over history.

As far back as 1796 the first Smallpox vaccine was developed by physician Edward Jenner. He discovered that by applying a small dose of another virus, cowpox, to a patient he could cure them of the deadly virus smallpox.

In the late 1800s Louis Pasteur performed extensive studies into microorganisms and went on to devote his time to work on infectious diseases. In 1881 Pasteur would help develop a vaccine for anthrax which was first used in cows and sheep. He then went on to develop the rabies vaccine and is famous for his pioneering work in studying viruses and advancing the science of virology. 

The 1950s and 60s saw a huge advancement in vaccine research with trials being undertaken for the polio virus vaccine and the development of vaccines for common viruses such as measles, mumps and rubella. In 1971 a combined MMR vaccine was produced and licensed by US pharmaceutical Merck which protected against measles, mumps and rubella in one single dose.

The first Chickenpox vaccine was licensed in the US in 1995, leading to a dramatic decrease in the number of cases hospitalised by this very contagious infection.  

The subject of vaccines and IP is a complex one with numerous parties being involved in the process, the extensive research and development in specialized fields of genetics and subsequent clinical trials, to finally marketing a drug to be used to benefit an entire population. It is a process that would normally take years to achieve but with the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic across the entire world the search for a vaccine has been fast tracked.

Normally a patent would be granted to a company or organization who had developed the vaccine and they would then hold the monopoly over their product for the duration of the patent. A patent normally lasts for a period of 20 years, although that can be extended by ‘supplementary protection certificates’ to compensate for delays in obtaining regulatory approval.

The owner of any patent would normally hold the exclusive rights to manufacture the vaccine or authorize another company to license out the patent, for example to another pharmaceutical firm.

However, patents can be overridden under the rules of “Crown Use” which is rarely ever employed.

Under the UK Patents Act 1977 the UK Government has the power to infringe a patent for the purposes of the “Crown”, i.e. for the good of the nation, without the consent of the patent owner.

Thus, in the case of COVID-19 the Crown Use rules could result in the government ensuring the supply of any vaccine or drugs for treatment of the virus without any patent owner’s authorization.

Ultimately the patent owner may be reimbursed down the line for any losses incurred

Already, during this crisis, we have seen car production lines abandon their usual line in automobiles, and instead dedicate their assembly line to the manufacture of ventilators for use in intensive care units in hospitals.

In these strange times we have all had to adapt to doing things differently. Given the nature of the pandemic institutions that would normally seek to profit from developing vaccines have indicated that they will forgo any profits.

AstraZeneca, which is currently leading the research for a COVID-19 vaccine in partnership with Oxford University, has received over $1billion funding from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to assist in the development, production and delivery of the vaccine. The pharmaceutical giant has said that it will not profit from the sale of the vaccine whilst the pandemic is ongoing.

Meanwhile Imperial College London is also pursuing a vaccine for COVID-19 and has formed a social enterprise, VacEquity Global Health (VGH) to ensure that its vaccine can be sold at a fair price and distributed globally, including low-income countries. Imperial and VGH have also said they will not pursue any royalties from this.

Of course a vaccine, if successfully developed, will only be one part of the story of the fight against COVID-19.

Every day, during the Government briefing, we have been presented with statistics about the number of tests for COVID-19 that have been carried out across the country. The majority of these tests are of a type called PCR or Polymerase chain reaction.

Invented in 1983 by the American biochemist Kary Mullis these tests can detect the genetic information of the virus thereby allowing those who are infected to be able to self-isolate and stop the spread of the disease.

Praise be to the continued hard work of scientists in pursuing medical advances, which is supported by having robust intellectual property laws (in particular in relation to patents) in order to incentivize the developments of new pharmaceuticals and vaccines.

In the words of Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”