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IP Explained: Intellectual property system working to combat COVID-19

Megan Van Etten   |     May 28, 2020   |   SHARE THIS

Biopharmaceutical companies are working around the clock to research and develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Intellectual property (IP) has enabled robust research collaboration among biopharmaceutical companies, universities and governments and rapid progress on nearly 400 potential coronavirus treatments and vaccines with more than 1,020 clinical trials under way.

But some are proposing policies that would strip IP rights from innovators or create new global institutions to “pool” patents or otherwise manage patent licensing. These actions are unnecessary and would distract from valuable progress underway. Patent licensing is already happening among governments, universities, companies and other research partners. Inventors of medicines and vaccines have demonstrated that they can manage patent licensing well and work collaboratively with others to combat the virus.

Thanks to the IP system put in place decades ago, biopharmaceutical innovators had a head start on potential solutions when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Much of the work under way has built on products and compounds, knowledge and research capacity developed over many years, made possible with the support of IP protections around the world. The longstanding IP system incentivized inventors to invest in developing new medicines and vaccines and has enabled them to license their technologies to research partners.

Specifically, the industry has deep scientific knowledge accrued through decades of research and development experience with viruses similar to SARS CoV2 such as Zika, Middle East Respiratory System (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In addition, biopharmaceutical innovators have invested billions of dollars in technologies that have dramatically shortened the time it takes to decode viruses’ genetic makeup and develop potential vaccines. This is how the industry has been able to quickly identify existing and potential treatments that could be used against the virus and move them rapidly into clinical trials.

This progress is further supported by the significant collaboration underway within and across industry and government. Whether in the lab, across the supply chain, or in the community, biopharmaceutical companies have joined forces with each other and with local and national governments and health care providers to speed the delivery of solutions to patients. And when new treatments and vaccines are approved, biopharmaceutical companies have already committed publicly to working closely with governments and others to ensure treatments and vaccines will be available and affordable to all who need them.

Governments around the world should also continue working with industry to address the structural non-scientific challenges to rapidly developing, testing and distributing approved COVID-19 treatments and vaccines to patients, such as reducing regulatory approval delays and unnecessary supply chain barriers. This will help ensure patients in need of treatments and vaccines will have access as quickly as possible, once they become available. Some governments are already taking important steps to prepare. For example, the United States Food and Drug Administration has provided Emergency Use Authorization that allows patients to access promising treatments that have not yet been approved; Brazil temporarily eliminated tariffs, granted priority customs clearance and established a more flexible marketing authorization process for products used to combat COVID-19; Australia, Canada, Singapore and other Pacific Rim countries jointly committed to maintain open trade and supply chains.

As we have seen, IP drives innovation. To truly enhance patient access to innovative medicines during this pandemic and pave the way for future progress, governments should institute and strengthen policies that incentivize the development, manufacturing and trade of treatments and cures. Any proposals concerning IP in COVID-19-related technologies should respect and preserve the current IP system that has fueled the critical advancements benefitting patients today and for generations to come.

Megan Van Etten

Megan Van Etten Megan Van Etten is senior director of public affairs at PhRMA. She is responsible for leading the association’s public affairs efforts on international issues, including trade, intellectual property and access to medicines. Prior to joining PhRMA, Megan was director of media and external communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and communications director at the Beer Institute. She has also worked as a communications consultant for global public relations firms. When not at the office, Megan enjoys exploring new Washington, D.C. restaurants and traveling with her husband and friends.

Topics: Patents, Intellectual Property, IP Explained, Coronavirus

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