28 January 2021

Trending topics of 2020: COVID-19 vaccinations

In this series, our IP experts will reflect on some of Google’s top trending topics throughout the unprecedented year of 2020. In our final article of the series, partner Juliet Redhouse and technical assistant Jonathan Israel explore arguably the most significant of all topics to come out of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing vaccinations.

2020 marked a year of global upheaval following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the year ended with more positive news following the regulatory approval of a number of vaccines for the start of the largest global vaccination campaign in history.

The world’s most innovative life sciences companies and institutions have risen to the challenge of generating safe and efficacious vaccines for global distribution at rapid speed. The pace at which these vaccines were developed largely arose from the repurposing of existing vaccine technologies to target the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus variant. However, clearly challenges have been overcome in both the design of the vaccine and its large-scale production, which will have resulted in new patent applications in 2020.

With 64 vaccine candidates in clinical development and a further 173 in pre-clinical development (source: WHO), 2021 should see the approval of further vaccine candidates. We are also likely to see continued focus on the emergence of new coronavirus variants. Some innovators have already started to shift their focus towards the development of vaccines tailored to new variants, and these efforts are likely to be accompanied by new patent filings.

We may also see patent filings around the optimisation of vaccine dosage regimens. The majority of the COVID-19 clinical vaccine candidates employ a two-dose regime, in the form of prime and booster doses, which has itself raised controversy over the benefits and trade-offs over lengthening the interval period. Moving into 2021, as the risk from new variants is brought into sharper focus, we may see some innovators adjusting the dosage regimen to compensate. For instance, a third booster dose has already been mooted as a possible future requirement and clinical trials are already planned, while the benefits of adjusting the prime dose have also been explored.

2020 has also seen an urgent need for COVID-19 treatments, which have until now been met by the repurposing of existing medicines. The UK Recovery trial was the first in the world to provide clinical trial evidence of a safe and effective COVID-19 treatment in the form of dexamethasone, a steroid that has been in existence for decades and has a well understood mechanism of action. In 2021, UK approval for antibody treatments tocilizumab and sarilumab has followed. Encouraged by these findings, and with improved understanding of the mechanisms of COVID pathogenesis, innovators are likely to intensify research efforts towards repurposing existing therapies to strengthen the therapeutic armoury. We are therefore likely to see new patent filings centred on further medical uses of existing therapies.

As 2021 moves into brighter times, it is likely that new tools will be required to adapt to a world living with COVID-19. We would particularly expect COVID-19 diagnostics to continue to play an important role, predominantly to monitor local COVID flare-ups and for targeted surveillance of new mutations. As domestic and international travel begins to restart, demand for reliable and rapid diagnostic tests will intensify and further investment and development in this area is likely. Further innovations in the form of protective measures for offices and public transport are also likely to be enhanced for if – and when – the workforce returns to the office.

Previous articles in our 2020 trending topics series include: ‘Tiger King – Murder, mayhem, mullets… and trade mark law‘ and ‘Face masks and design protection‘.