Vial and syringe.

4 Things to Know About Intellectual Property, Patent Pledges, and COVID-19 Vaccines

By Chloe Reichel

High-profile commentators have argued recently that vaccine scarcity needn’t exist. If vaccine manufacturers simply shared their patents with other pharmaceutical companies, supply would quickly ramp up. 

Others have pointed out that numerous bottlenecks exist in the manufacturing process, from the glass vials that hold the vaccine, to the lipids that encase the vaccine’s active ingredient, mRNA.

And even if these bottlenecks didn’t exist, the intellectual property argument may be a straw man.    

In fact, this past October, Moderna made a gesture toward opening access to its intellectual property, by pledging that it would not enforce its patents against “those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic.” That month, Jorge L. Contreras, a Presidential Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Utah, covered the patent pledge and its potential implications for Bill of Health.

We checked in with Contreras to ask about the implications of Moderna’s patent pledge now that its vaccine has been proven safe and effective. Here are the highlights from the conversation:

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Photo of person with gloved hand holding flask at lab bench.

Pharmaceutical Patents on Manufacturing Methods: Groundless or Well-Supported?

By Laura Karas

Are manufacturing method patents — patents not on a pharmaceutical drug itself, but on a method of production of a drug — warranted intellectual property protections, or groundless obstacles to competition?

Patents protect and reward innovation by permitting the patent-holder the exclusive right to make, use, and sell the invention for a twenty-year period. Pharmaceutical companies have attracted scrutiny, criticism, and legal challenges for amassing large numbers of patents on pharmaceutical drugs, especially high-priced and high revenue-earning drugs.

Here I explore the topic of pharmaceutical patents on methods of production and translate into layman’s terms some thought-provoking recent scholarship by innovation scholars W. Nicholson Price and Arti Rai.

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close up photo of U.S. currency.

When “Pay-for-Delay” Becomes “Delay-Without-Pay”: Humira Antitrust Claims

By Laura Karas

In June 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed state and federal antitrust claims against AbbVie, maker of Humira (adalimumab), for accruing more than 130 patents on the top-selling drug and asserting allegedly unmeritorious patent infringement claims against makers of adalimumab biosimilars. AbbVie then settled the patent infringement litigation by entering into agreements with eight drug makers to allow adalimumab biosimilars to enter the U.S. market in 2023 and the European market in 2018.

In my last post, I discussed the district court’s memorandum opinion finding that “the vast majority” of AbbVie’s conduct was not “objectively baseless petitioning” and was therefore immunized under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine. In this post, I explore several problematic aspects of the court’s reasoning for rejecting the claims of pay-for-delay and market allocation.

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Doctor Holding Cell Phone. Cell phones and other kinds of mobile devices and communications technologies are of increasing importance in the delivery of health care. Photographer Daniel Sone.

Clash of Titans? A Brewing Dispute between Telehealth Giants

By Vrushab Gowda

Competition between rival telehealth providers spilled into open conflict last month, as incumbent Teladoc Health, Inc. (Teladoc) filed a patent infringement suit against relative upstart American Well Corporation (Amwell).

This development marks a significant escalation in what has been a lengthy arms race between the two publicly traded entities. Both having witnessed skyrocketing sales in recent months, aided by a shift to virtual care and a host of regulatory flexibilities, although neither has turned a profit to date.

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Vaccine.

Compulsory Licensing for Pharmaceuticals in the EU: A Reality Check

By Caranina (Nina) Colpaert

As pharma races to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, researchers and governments are working in parallel to pinpoint strategies to secure its widespread access.

To that end, many countries plan to seek refuge in a long-existing strategy: compulsory licensing.

In the European Union (EU), however, compulsory licensing is not as self-evident as it might seem. This blog post focuses on four specific challenges that come with compulsory licensing in the EU and potential alternative solutions.

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Researcher works at a lab bench

Deconstructing Moderna’s COVID-19 Patent Pledge

By Jorge L. Contreras, JD

On October 8, Cambridge-based biotech company Moderna, Inc., a leading contender in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, publicly pledged not to enforce its COVID-19 related patents against “those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic.”

It also expressed willingness to license its intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines to others after the pandemic. In making this pledge, Moderna refers to its “special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible.”

Moderna holds seven issued U.S. patents covering aspects of an mRNA-based candidate vaccine directed to COVID-19 which entered Phase III clinical trials in July. The potential market for a COVID-19 vaccine is potentially enormous. As of this writing, the U.S. government has committed approximately $1.5 billion to acquire 100 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine if it proves to be safe and effective (with an option for 100 million more), and the Canadian government has agreed to purchase 20 million doses for an undisclosed amount.

In the high-stakes market for COVID-19 vaccines, it is worth considering the full range of factors that might motivate a private firm to relinquish valuable intellectual property rights for the public good. A better understanding of these factors could help policymakers to secure additional pledges from firms that have not yet volunteered their intellectual property in the fight against the pandemic.

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U.S. Patent and Trademark Office building

Patent Fakes: How Fraudulent Inventions Threaten Public Health, Innovation, and the Economy

By Jorge L. Contreras, JD

The U.S. patent system gives inventors a 20-year exclusive right to their inventions to incentivize the creation of new technologies.

But what if you have a great idea for a new technology, but never actually create it, test it, or determine that it works? Is that patentable? Conversely, should the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) grant patents covering imaginary, fraudulent and otherwise non-existent inventions? Probably not, but it happens with alarming frequency, and it is causing serious problems.

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Doctor or nurse wearing PPE, N95 mask, face shield and personal protective gown standing beside the car/road screening for Covid-19 virus, Nasal swab Test.

COVID-19 Highlights Need for Rights to Repair and Produce in Emergencies

By Joshua D. Sarnoff

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies, organizations, and individuals have sought to address supply chain gaps for needed medical equipment. Spare parts and products created during the COVID-19 pandemic include ventilator tube splitters, nasopharyngeal swabs, and face shields.

In the past, outside of the context of a public health crisis, I have discussed the need to adopt legislation to create a narrow exemption from design patent liability to assure a competitive supply of automobile repair parts. The current pandemic makes a stronger case for the need to explicitly incorporate into our legal system a right to repair and supply products in emergencies.

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