By Takahiro Shibuya
As the development of vaccines for the new coronavirus proceeds at a rapid pace, it is also important to evaluate the accumulation of information on the subject. Nikkei surveyed patent applications filed prior to the emergence of the new coronavirus and found that only 650 applications for coronavirus-related patents were filed in the past 20 years, showing that this field has very little involvement by major pharmaceutical companies. It is thought that the short duration of the epidemic and small return on investment have created this situation.
There are several tens of coronavirus varieties, including those that infect dogs, cats, and pigs. There are seven coronaviruses known to infect humans, including the one that causes COVID-19. The seven viruses include four that cause symptoms of the common cold as well as those that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), both of which are serious respiratory illnesses.
Nikkei requested Shobayashi International Patent and Trademark Office in Tokyo to look into the coronavirus-related patents filed globally between 1995 and 2018. Patents related to humans numbered 650 cases, markedly lower than the patents filed for other diseases during the same period, such as over 38,000 patents for Alzheimer’s-related conditions and over 20,000 patents related to AIDS.
The U.S. had the highest number of human-related coronavirus patents, followed by South Korea and Japan in the second and third spots.
Universities, public institutions, and startups are prevalent among the institutions with high numbers of coronavirus-related patent applications. Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology (KRIBB) had the highest number of coronavirus-related patent applications (13) and Roche, a Swiss company, had the second highest at nine applications. Several institutions, such as South Korea’s Yonsei University, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and U.S. Pfizer tied for the third highest number of applications. Japan lags behind other countries, with Genomedia, an Osaka University startup, placing 12th with only five applications.
Many of the patents owned by major pharmaceutical companies that own many patents were originally submitted by startups that these companies bought. Pfizer’s patents were submitted by U.S. Wyeth, which Pfizer acquired in 2009.
Research and development on the coronavirus at major pharmaceutical companies is not making much progress because the return on investment is low. Patent attorney Noriyuki Morikawa, who conducted this analysis, notes that research on virus treatments and vaccines begins when an epidemic is already underway. When the vaccine is ready, the epidemic has subsided and there is less demand. “Compared to chronic illnesses, the drug treatment period for viruses is short,” says Morikawa. (Abridged)