A preliminary network analysis highlights the complex intellectual property landscape behind mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on global health and highlighted the importance of international cooperation to effectively combat SARS-CoV-2. Since the discovery and publication of the virus’s genome in January 2020, scientists have rushed to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics on an unprecedented timescale. To date there are 80 vaccines in clinical trials and 70 more in clinical development, setting the stage for some of the fastest vaccine development and testing in modern history1. The vaccine technology platforms used by the most promising vaccine candidates range from viral vector–based and protein-based technologies to mRNA and lipid nanoparticle technology. Despite these impressive scientific achievements, barriers such as the vaccine cold chain and multiple forms of intellectual property (IP) protection stand in the way of equitable access and fair allocation.
Webs of intellectual property claims underpin the marketing of many vaccines. For example, the underlying technology used to develop a vaccine can be protected by patents, while manufacturing methods and techniques (know-how) can be protected by trade secrets. Therapeutic development programs tend to consist of an intricate relationship between an inventor and an innovator2. The foundational technology needed to develop a vaccine could have been invented in an academic lab setting or startup research firm, protected through patents, and subsequently licensed out to a larger entity for further development and commercialization. These larger entities are designated as innovators because they transform the foundational technology into the final market product. In an attempt to demonstrate the complexity involved in IP protections and licensing deals surrounding COVID-19 vaccine technology, we developed a preliminary patent network analysis. We identified patents that were relevant to various vaccine technology platforms and used US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings to highlight pertinent licensing deals. A visualization of the landscape is shown in Fig. 1.
Large nodes represent the relevant entities while the edges represent agreements or patents between two entities. Smaller nodes around the entities represent patents that were identified as being relevant to the underlying vaccine technology (Supplementary Information). The network analysis was developed using Gephi23.