Many people are unaware of the essential role that Intellectual Property (IP) played in the response to COVID-19. The effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments required extensive collaboration among biopharmaceutical companies and other institutions. Without IP, much of that collaboration could not have occurred in the way that it did. Many successes may never have occurred or could have taken much longer.
“Unprecedented”, a report that I co-authored with Prof. Mark Schultz, considers the role of IP in the pandemic response and identifies lessons from that experience, to inform responses to future health crises. As part of our research, we interviewed more than a dozen senior executives from the companies involved in developing new vaccines and treatments. Below are three of our key findings.
IP contributed to the creation of background technologies and know-how that were used to rapidly develop COVID-19 solutions.
COVID-19 treatments were an overnight success that took decades and major financial investments to achieve. When the fight against the pandemic began, the world was fortunate that new technologies such as the mRNA and adenovirus viral vector platforms were at hand. These promising technologies could be applied immediately to address COVID-19 thanks to decades of R&D efforts and collaboration, secured in part by IP protection.
Although researchers had identified these technologies as promising decades before, it took many more years of applied research by startups and larger life sciences companies to develop them into treatments that could be used by patients. The long journey from labs to jabs was the result of billions of dollars invested and years of developing the know-how to make these treatments work. We had vaccines by the end of 2020 thanks to previous decades of work, which took place within innovation ecosystems that incentivized investments in biopharmaceutical R&D.
IP supported collaboration, which was crucial to delivering new solutions in a short timeframe.
In early 2020, with COVID-19 spreading rapidly, time was of the essence – and innovators acted quickly to address the crisis together with others in the biopharma ecosystem. They could not have acted as quickly without collaboration.
Fortunately, IP protection provided the security and fostered the trust needed by partners to share their technologies and know-how. IP protection made it less likely they would lose control over these important assets. This trusted collaboration enabled them to build on what others had already achieved, thus accelerating COVID-19 R&D efforts. In some cases, innovators began working together before the details of the relationship had been worked out.
Technology transfer happened rapidly and on a broad scale in response to COVID-19.
Technology transfer happened at a speed previously unseen, as reported by those with years of industry experience. For example, Pfizer, BioNTech, and Novartis developed a novel manufacturing process for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in roughly four months, even though mRNA vaccines had never been made at commercial scale. The process included hundreds of steps and required them to source ingredients from many dozens of suppliers, with at least twenty novel ingredients.
When it came time to make billions of doses, innovators realized right away they could not make enough doses using only in-house manufacturing capacity. Contract manufacturing partners were rapidly identified and vetted, so that global manufacturing and distribution networks could be established. Today, there are more than 370 reported COVID-19 partnerships, most involving technology transfer.
Technology transfer was a crucial aspect of these partnerships, which made it possible to rapidly scale production. Successful collaboration required far more than simply sharing a recipe. Companies shared thousands of pages of confidential documentation and sent teams to work with partners on-site for weeks or months to transfer know-how. An innovator could only do this – while also meeting its obligations to investors, employees, and other stakeholders – if the company’s most valuable assets were protected by IP.
This research project led Mark and me to believe that, had there been no IP protection at the start of the pandemic, there would have been far less collaboration and, especially, sharing of technology and know-how. This would have been perceived as too risky, pushing companies to work exclusively with what they had in-house. Without IP protection, integrating new players into global manufacturing networks would also have been riskier. This could have set back the pandemic response.
We were surprised to learn how even competitors immediately started working together. When we asked about this, interviewees said it was only natural that those with the most R&D and commercialization experience should work together to address this global crisis. In some cases, they taught their biggest competitors exactly how to manufacture their most innovative products. They pointed to their confidence in IP frameworks as part of what enabled such collaboration.
More than two years later, it’s easy to forget that in early 2020 the global health community had never before faced a novel health problem affecting every patient, in every country, at the same time. Nobody was prepared for this – and a successful response was not guaranteed. Many endeavors failed. For those that worked out, IP protection was an important enabler.
Jennifer Brant is the CEO of Innovation Insights, and co-author of the report “Unprecedented: The Rapid Innovation Response to COVID-19 and the Role of Intellectual Property”. The full report can be found here: https://bit.ly/3QCP0Gi . Ideas Matters’ video interview with Jen Brant can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/hDz4SD6jkgg