In rush to solve COVID-19 crisis, world governments ask some to hand over IP rights

The patent system can spur research and development in a health crisis, but public health advocates may see patents as barriers to better patient health outcomes.


Since China announced the first case on November 17 of a virus about which little was known at the time, coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, have grown to pandemic proportions.

This new strain of the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related (SARS) coronavirus had killed more than 120,000 people worldwide as of mid-April, shuttered social gatherings, precipitated a mandatory work-from-home revolution and decimated large parts of the world’s economy.

Now comes the rush to find treatments and save lives, even at the possible expense of patent rights.

Early U.S. applications

By late March, a couple of U.S. companies had announced that their COVID-19 research led to the filing of patent applications covering methods of treating patients infected with the coronavirus.

On March 20, Houston-based Moleculin Biotech issued a press release about a patent application covering the use of the inhibitor compound WP1122 to limit coronavirus replication in patients. WP1122 is a compound in Moleculin’s cancer drug portfolio developed to target highly glycolytic tumors that are difficult to treat, including brain tumors and pancreatic cancer.

WP1122 disrupts the metabolism of glucose—which, along with depriving cancer cells of energy, could also do the same for cells hosting COVID-19 and possibly improve immune system response.

On March 23, Jackson Center, Pennsylvania-based Premier Biomedical announced it would have exclusive rights to practice a method of treating COVID-19 infection being patented by a company executive.

The method involves the use of antibodies targeting COVID-19 replication pathways, allowing the coronavirus to be removed through an extracorporeal blood treatment performed at a clinic.

The treatment leverages Premier Biomedical’s previous technological developments designed to remove blood-borne antigens from patients. It also reduces the risk of the development of cytokine storms, a form of autoimmune disorder involving activated white blood cells which can cause respiratory inflammation when COVID-19 enters the lungs.

Compulsory licensing

Although some firms have been filing for patents to protect their coronavirus treatment innovations, others have faced ultimatums by government to hand over their IP rights during this time of global crisis.

By March 19, Israeli’s Ministry of Justice announced that a generic version of AbbVie’s HIV treatment Kaletra has been approved for importation into that country—despite the fact that AbbVie’s patent protection for Kaletra in Israel doesn’t expire until 2024. According to reports, this is the first time that the Israeli government has exercised the section of the country’s 1967 patent law that allows the approval of generic versions of patent-protected medicines.

In an official company statement, AbbVie announced its intention to dedicate its Kaletra IP to the public in response to the COVID-19 health crisis.

Around the same time, The Jerusalem Post published an article discussing an uptick in patent filing activity from Israeli firms developing diagnostic tools and treatments designed to help the world get a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation highlights a unique tension in the patent system, which can spur research and development in response to a health crisis and also draw the ire of public health advocates who see patents as barriers to better patient health outcomes.

Israel may not be the only country exercising means for subverting patent rights as a responsive measure to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By mid-March, Ecuador’s National Assembly approved a proposed resolution that would enable that country’s government to establish a compulsory licensing framework for patents covering medical technologies related to COVID-19. In the United States, the Senate passed a $2.2 trillion economic package to deal with the coronavirus crisis, including more than $1 billion earmarked for federal medical research projects.

The world’s response to patent rights in the face of such a health crisis gives a strong indication that such rights could be trampled underfoot on the path toward ridding the globe of COVID-19.