With the COVID-19 pandemic being an issue that is impossible to ignore in recent months, it comes as little surprise that the race to develop a treatment or a vaccine for this virus is at the forefront of the minds of many innovators.
As individuals, companies, universities and governments across the globe strive to develop treatments and vaccines, several questions loom. If someone does develop a successful vaccine, should they be able to patent it? Or, should the formula be made publicly available around the world to allow even the planet’s poorest citizens to have immediate access to it?
While this debate remains at least partially theoretical in advance of the development of a successful treatment or a vaccine, this is an excellent time to examine pharmaceutical patent laws and their effect on the availability of medical treatments and vaccines.
What Is Pharmaceutical Patent Law?
Many people aren’t aware that new drugs frequently are patented by their creators. This means that the company that developed the drug has the right to prevent their competitors from making an identical product, and this means that the patent owner has reserved the right to earn profits from the formula to himself.
Eventually, all patents expire. At this time, which typically is after approximately 20 years, it becomes possible for other drug companies, including those that produce generic versions of medications, to make these drugs and perhaps offer them at a fraction of the price for which the patent owner was selling it.
Pharmaceutical patents are important to companies because it is risky and expensive for these companies to develop new drugs. Years of research, development and testing may be required, and the exclusive period of being able to claim the profits from sales of that drug help the company to recoup its expenses and turn a tidy profit. Moreover, the patent owner has the option of licensing their rights to other companies, which also can signal enhanced profits.
The downside pharmaceutical patents is that sometimes these drugs are incredibly expensive when they are under patent. Accordingly, people with limited financial means may not be able to afford access to critical medications.
If a treatment or vaccine could save lives, is it right to restrict the manufacture of this medicine to a single innovator or to charge a premium price for it?
Pharmaceutical Patent Law in a Pandemic
Over the years, large pharmaceutical firms have used a variety of more-or-less nefarious schemes in an attempt to extend their exclusive hold over patented drugs. With powerful government lobbying departments, they have sought to prohibit or minimize the manufacture of generic drugs.
Observers are concerned that if a major pharmaceutical company does develop a COVID-19 vaccine, that it will do everything it can to complicate access to it. The problem becomes more complex if more than one treatment or vaccine is developed. Then, there may be competing concerns that will make it even harder to dispense effective medicines to the world’s population.
This is why NGOs and certain pharmaceutical companies, along with biotech communities, are pledging to make public the results of their research and development into the treatment and prevention of the coronavirus. Accordingly, such drugs would be provided inexpensively or even at no cost to people around the world.
Similarly, the World Health Organization is lobbying to make research, treatments and vaccines publicly available, while some countries are proposing limited patent rights for treatments and vaccines that include mandatory licensing.
Vaccine Patent Law
Most of the vaccines that are recommended by medical professionals are far older than the typical 20-year term of a U.S. utility patent. This means that they are no longer subject to patent protection. Accordingly, they can be safely and effectively manufactured by a variety of companies without any of these companies running afoul of another’s patent rights.
However, if the currently hypothetical coronavirus vaccine is developed, should the inventor have the right to patent it? Some parties argue that the developer should have the exclusive right to profit from their achievement while others are convinced that the vaccine should be made publicly available to all.
Currently, various efforts are underway to make the vaccine available for the good of the world’s population. Time will tell if these efforts, and the effort to develop a vaccine, are successful.
If you are an inventor or entrepreneur with an innovative idea, then it makes sense to take essential steps to protect your work. Contact the Williams IP Law for an initial consultation to explore your options.