In a TED talk in 2015, Bill Gates argued that global pandemics would be one of the greatest threats to humanity in the years ahead. In published research, many virologists have continually warned of potential new coronavirus threats, including those spread by bats. However, global pharmacological companies and medical technology giants have never prioritized coronavirus diagnostics and treatment. Until 2018, Russia conducted its anti-coronavirus studies only for veterinary purposes at the VECTOR State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, which filed only two requests for corresponding patents. All of this and so much more has been shown in a patent analysis, which Ekaterina Streltsova, a senior research fellow of the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge, discusses a column for IQ.
Senior Research Fellow,
HSE Institute for Statistical Studies
and Economics of Knowledge
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, coronaviruses—a distinct family of RNA viruses—were of no special interest to a wide range of medical technology developers. This is clearly evidenced by the patent activity in this field. In 2010-2017, less than 500 patent applications for advances related to coronavirus infection diagnosis, prevention, and treatment were filed globally. They accounted for only 0.03% of the world’s total patent applications in medical technologies and pharmaceuticals. Such low-level patent activity is due to the nature of the of diseases triggered by coronaviruses: except for severe cases (SARS, MERS), they can progress almost asymptomatically, like a mild common cold.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, coronavirus researchers did not really expect their developments to be a commercial success that would help them gain a foothold on the market. Half of the technologies, including test systems, vaccines, treatment methods, etc., are patented in the applicants' countries only. In other words, many companies, even those engaged in studies in this field, did not consider it necessary to promote their developments in foreign markets.
Additional evidence of medical technology developers' low interest in creating tools to combat coronavirus infections can be seen in the ranking of the leaders in this area’s patent activity.
The above rating does not include the key players of the global medical and pharmaceuticals market. Most of the applicants are designated research institutes, individual universities, and relatively small companies. Moreover, there is a noticeable number of companies engaged in veterinary medicine, for example, Zoetis (the world's largest producer of animal medications), Intervet International B.V. (part of the veterinary division of the Merck Corporation), and the Pirbright Institute, which focuses on infectious diseases in farm animals.
However, even the leaders' patent activity in question is pretty low. For example, the Tianjin International Academy of Biomedicine, which tops the list, filed only 15 applications for coronavirus-related development in 2010-2017.
Over that period, entities in a total of 19 countries received patents: China, the Republic of Korea, the USA, Russia, Japan, the Netherlands, Ukraine, New Zealand, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, France, Taiwan, Poland, Switzerland, Italy, Malaysia, Canada, and Sweden (countries are listed in decreasing order of the patent applications number filed by national applicants). From 2010 to 2017, Russian researchers filed 23 patent applications for coronavirus-related advancements, with the majority of them in the field of veterinary sciences.
Research and patent activity in the field of coronavirus treatment corresponds largely with severe outbreaks of diseases caused by types of coronaviruses. Among developments patented in 2010-2017, more than 30 of them concern diagnostics and treatment of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV, which was registered for the first time in China in 2002. Another 38 were for developments associated with the coronavirus MERS-CoV and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the first cases of which were registered in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
Naturally, the outbreak of COVID-19 has also spurred activity in coronavirus diagnostics, treatment, and prevention among medical technology developers. To date, seven new patent applications for SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus diagnostic tools have been registered in the international patent databases, although it has only been a little over half a year since the first cases of infection were recorded.
Almost all registered applications have been filed by Chinese companies. One of them is the Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology Co. Ltd., which specializes in diagnostic test development and production.
Here are the numbers and titles of the company’s patent applications:
CN111024954-A «Colloidal gold immunochromatography device useful for joint detection of coronavirus disease (COVID)-19 antigen and antibody, comprises COVID-19 antigen detection test strip and COVID-19 antibody detection test strip»
CN111060691 «Fluorescence immunochromatography device useful for detecting new coronavirus COVID-19 comprises test strips including sample pad, binding pad, reaction pad and water absorption pad provided with detection line and sample».
Vision Medicals Technology, Nanjing Synthgene Medical Technology, and Shanghai Bangxian Medical Technology filed registration requests for advancements as well. The numbers and titles of these Chinese companies' applications are listed below:
CN111041089 «Use of host markers in preparing COVID-19 infection detection reagents or detection equipment, in which host marker includes RNR1, MFSD11, SYNE3 and/or SLC10A3 genes»
CN111074008 «Improving accuracy of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) nucleic acid detection by performing reverse reaction, performing recombinase polymerase amplification, separating DNA double strand, performing quantitative PCR and analyzing result»
CN111118228 «Kit useful for detecting Coronavirus COVID-19 nucleic acid, comprises first primer pair and first probe corresponding to Coronavirus (Cov)-n, and second primer pair and second probe corresponding to Cov-ORF1ab».
These lists show that all technologies, tools, and their components relate to SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics, namely the improvement of its accuracy, speed, convenience, etc., which should help doctors fight the pandemic more efficiently. The speed and accuracy of testing, as well as having a sufficient number of testing kits available are known to be the key factors in curbing the disease, which countries such as South Korea and Germany have successfully demonstrated.
Despite a rather quick response to the COVID-19 pandemic by some developers, it is now hard to predict the extent and direction of development this field may take in the future. On the one hand, the stable trends of the recent years are more likely to indicate that this interest will fade along with the number of infected people and will not become part of the major players’ corporate research strategies.
On the other hand, it seems that both the extent of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus infection, incomparable with the damage caused by SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, and a possible second wave of infections, could change the priorities of medical and pharmaceutical companies. This means that by the end of the year, we may see significantly increased patent activity in this area.
Source — PatStat Global database (as of 15.05.2020). The patent applications for coronavirus-related advancements were selected based on keywords in the names of the developments and their application abstracts.