Landscape of patents related to the Coronaviridae family and SARS and MERS outbreaks
By Ana Paula Dantas Côrrea Couto, Cintia Lima and Ludmila Kawakami
In view of the emergence of COVID-19, there is also the need to seek technological solutions that can be useful for global and local actions.
At this time, scientific production is crucial to better understand the behavior of the virus, the disease caused by the same and its effects, and finally for developing solutions thereto. The new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, belongs to the Coronaviridae family, usually known as the coronavirus family. Within this family, there are variations of the virus, such as Sars-CoV and Mers-CoV – which are widely known by scientists – and hundreds of other coronaviruses that circulate among different animals like dogs, cats, pigs and bats, and among humans.
Coronaviruses are viruses that cause respiratory disease of variable severity, from the common cold to fatal pneumonia, and so far, seven types of coronavirus infections have been identified.
The viruses can also extrapolate the host and start to infect other species causing diseases. Three of this seven coronavirus infections can be much more serious and even fatal to humans, and have recently caused major outbreaks of pneumonia and respiratory diseases:
- SARS-CoV2, the new coronavirus, was first identified in 2019 in Wuhan (China) as the cause of “coronavirus disease of 2019” (COVID-19) and has spread worldwide. The new coronavirus is believed to be originated from bats;
- MERS-CoV was identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 as the cause of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and comes from dromedaries; and
- SARS-CoV was identified in 2002 in China as the cause of an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Although its origin is not defined, it is believed to have been transmitted from bats to cats and then to humans.
Coronaviruses are RNA viruses encapsulated by an envelope containing glycoproteins in the form of spikes responsible for the characteristic crown appearance that gave rise to the name of this family.
From the analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, it is possible to observe that the new coronavirus has a structure similar to the other viruses of the betacoronaviruses genus, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. Betacoronaviruses encode several structural proteins, among them, the spike-shaped S glycoproteins that are considered the major immune response inducer in the host. In addition, the literature points out that SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 are able to invade the human cell by binding to the same receptor, the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), while MERS-CoV binds to the enzyme dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP4).
So far, there is no vaccine or pharmacological treatment approved for COVID-19, that was considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a pandemic and which has been responsible for the collapse of health systems in mostly of the affected countries, given its morbidity, mortality and high transmission capacity. Although there are already options for the diagnosis of the disease, several countries have faced difficulties both in obtaining the tests and in processing and obtaining the results due to the high demand. Therefore, more efficient solutions for diagnosis are also targeted.
In this sense, the solutions developed for the other coronaviruses may represent the starting point for research groups seeking solutions for COVID-19.
Patents are strong indicators of technological innovation and are considered to be the most complete of the research sources, since about 70% of the information provided by patents is not available in other media. Thus, patents are widely known as a source of technological information.
In order to identify information in the patent literature that may be relevant to the development of solutions for the new coronavirus, a survey was carried out in Patbase database using keywords related to the Coronaviridae family and the SARS and MERS outbreaks.
Altogether, 12,694 patents and patent applications filed in different countries since 1972 have been identified, which are grouped into 2,142 extended patent families. Each extended family of patents gathers patent documents filed in different countries for the same technology.
The filing of patents related to coronaviruses, that is, those that are not specific for SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, has been observed since 1972, while the first signs of protection for specific SARS-Cov technologies began in 2002 and skyrocketed between 2003 and 2005, reaching a total of about 380 families filed within different jurisdictions. Such numbers represent the great technological effort in the search for solutions for the virus identified in 2002 and was accompanied by the increase in the number of patents filed for coronavirus, which doubled in 2005. Regarding MERS, the first filings were identified in 2013, also after the virus identification.
The analysis of the first filing office can indicate the origin of the technology and of the applicant and even the innovative potential of a country. In general, it is observed that patents related to coronaviruses, SARS and MERS predominantly had their first filing in the United States and China, followed by South Korea, Japan and Europe.
At the same time, among the ten applicants with the largest number of families, there is a prevalence of Chinese and North American applicants and only one applicant is from Taiwan. This distribution can be attributed to the significant number of patent families targeting SARS, whose outbreak began in China, and the position of the United States as one of the Global Innovation Leaders over the years.
In addition, the analysis of the 25 jurisdictions with the highest number of patents filed also demonstrates the concentration of protection in the United States, Europe and in Asian countries, such as China and Japan.
Considering also the content of the applications, it was possible to classify them among those directed to SARS, MERS and the Coronoviridae family in general, and in relation to the type of technology to which they refer, that is, solutions for the treatment, prophylaxis or diagnosis of this type of virus. It is noteworthy that many times the same application is directed to more than one category of technology and, for this reason, the computed results overlap and are not cumulative.
It was observed that most of the applications directed to MERS and SARS are related to technologies for the treatment and prophylaxis of such disease, while the applications for diagnosis correspond to about half of this volume. Such divergence is not observed in the applications addressed to the Coronoviridae family, which have an approximate volume of applications for the treatment, prophylaxis and diagnosis of coronaviruses.
From the analysis of the status of the documents, it is possible to speculate some characteristics of the applications, for example, if the technologies in question are in fact protected or if they are already in the public domain or about the potential of the invention. About 41.5% of the 12,694 applications filed worldwide are inactive, which includes expired patents, applications rejected for not meeting the requirements and abandoned, while about 58.5% of these are active, covering applications still under examination or patents that have already been granted.
Another factor to be considered for technological prospecting is related to the validity of the patent. In general, the rights acquired by patents are effective for 20 years from the filing date. Thus, it is expected that part of the technologies related to coronaviruses and, mostly, to SARS may be close to public domain, since many of them were filed between 2003 and 2005, which can be considered a favorable and motivating factor for research and development using such technologies.
The results found were illustrated in the following infographic.
The collected information provides an overview of patents and patent applications related to the coronavirus family and can be used as a basis for the skilled person seeking solutions for COVID-19. It is evident that technology prospecting still requires a more detailed analysis of the content of each patent and, consequently, of the protected technology. However, based on this data, it is possible to outline strategies on where to, punctually and in an organized manner, search for relevant technical information for new researches. Undoubtedly, the use of patents as a source of technological information is extremely relevant for SDI, which could not be different for researches directed to COVID-19.
Ana Paula Couto is Patent Specialist in Di Blasi, Parente & Associados, she has a bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy, she is specialized in Intellectual Property Law and she is currently working on her master’s degree on Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer for Innovation. She has been working in the IP field since 2012 and her practice includes patent prosecution; patentability, prior art searches, FTO and infringement analysis; third parties’ observations and nullity proceedings, particularly, in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and chemical fields.
Cintia Lima is Patent Specialist at Di Blasi, Parente & Associados. She holds a degree in Chemical Engineering. She has been working in the IP field since 2008 and her practice includes patent prosecution; patentability, FTO and infringement analysis; third parties observations and nullity proceedings; support on technical matters in litigation, particularly, in the chemistry and mechanic fields.
Ludmila Kawakami is Patent Specialist at Di Blasi, Parente & Associados. She holds a degree in Pharmacist and a Master of Sciences degree, with emphasis on Immunobiological Technology. She has been working in the IP field since 2013 and her practice includes patent prosecution; patentability, FTO and infringement analysis; third parties observations and nullity proceedings; support on technical matters in litigation, particularly, in the pharmacy, biotechnology and chemistry fields; and support on proceedings related to the Access of Brazilian Genetic Heritage and Associated Traditional Knowledge.
 NIH. Coronaviruses. Available in: https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/coronaviruses, Accessed on April 30, 2020.