June 25, 2020
By: Zachary J. Levi

Although there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, pharmaceutical companies in the United States, Europe and China are working tirelessly to be the first to find the preventive. When a vaccine is ultimately developed, these world leading economies want to find themselves at the forefront to ensure access to their citizens. Owning the patent rights to the COVID-19 vaccine is therefore the ultimate goal.

A patent is an exchange between an inventor and a national government in which the inventor discloses to the public exactly how to recreate the claimed invention and is in return given an exclusivity period during which it may choose who, when, where, and how that invention is made, used, or sold. The power of the patent, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic, must be used in the least restrictive way possible.

Europe has given assurances that should they be the first to develop and patent a vaccine, they would make the vaccine globally available through licensing agreements. Given the ongoing trade disputes between the United States and China, including China’s history of not enforcing intellectual property rights of American inventors, it is now feared that should the United States or China be the first to develop and patent a vaccine, access could be used as leverage against the other.

For example, a United States pharmaceutical laboratory owns the patent rights to the only known antiviral believed to be effective at treating coronaviruses (originally developed to treat Ebola) such as COVID-19. After the breakout of the virus in China, the U.S. laboratory donated the antiviral to hospitals in China to test its effectiveness. A Chinese institute responded by filing a “method of use” patent that includes the donated antiviral and an additional antiviral (a malaria antiviral).

At this time, it is believed that the institute in China filed its patent as a defensive measure to secure access to the donated antiviral and lower any licensing fees owed for its usage of the antiviral. The ongoing mistrust between the two nations could have a harmful effect on the global access to the vaccine. As other foreign laboratories work on a vaccine for COVID-19, critics warn that defensive patent filings by Chinese laboratories will deter foreign laboratories from testing their products in China for fear that their intellectual property rights will not be protected.

These concerns cannot be brought to fruition. There needs to be an understanding that political conflict and competition cannot interfere with defeating a global pandemic.