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The History of Patenting Vaccines

The race is on to find a vaccine for Coronavirus. As companies around the world pool their resources and share their data, it’s wise to look back and examine the history of medical patents and vaccines. Doing so may provide a clue as to how this current race will end.

Flu Vaccine

The Spanish Flu of 1918 was a wake-up call to the world. By the 1940s, the US military had developed the first effective flu vaccines. Today, the process for manufacturing these vaccines has changed little and still relies on the use of hen’s eggs.

More recently, in January of this year, the FDA approved Audenze to protect against H5N1 more commonly known as the “Avian Influenza.” Developed by Seqirus, the drug is stable and can be stockpiled to protect countries against the rapid spread of this virus.


“There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Jonas Salk’s famous quote regarding the reasons he didn’t patent the vaccine he invented for polio in 1955. His team at the University of Pittsburg carefully studied the research and efforts conducted by everyone from John Kolmer and Maurice Brodie in the 1930s, to John Enders in the 1940s. Each of these attempts and many others created a guideline for Salk to follow. This allowed them to work quickly and avoid the mistakes and errors that previous teams had made.

Of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Not long after the mass vaccination program began, reports came into the US Surgeon General about significant numbers of vaccine recipients who developed paralytic polio in the days and weeks after the vaccination. Problems with manufacture resulted in nearly 100,000 vaccines containing live poliovirus leaving the Cutter and Wyeth laboratories.

Public lore states that Salk didn’t patent the vaccine because of his dedication to science and humanity. The real reason is more complex and was because the attorneys at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis determined that it was not patentable because of prior art as established by the standards of the time.

Coronavirus Is a Game Changer

It took years, and more often, decades for researchers and scientists to develop effective vaccines for Avian flu, Polio, and other viruses from the past. Those days may be over. Coronavirus has turned off the snooze alarm the FDA, governments, and private companies had pushed.

The world is now engaged in a race to the finish line, and governments and private companies in Europe, Asia, and North America are throwing every conceivable resource at this virus. Notably, they are using advanced AI and many other tools to share information, compare data and zero in on the weaknesses of COVID-19. Within the past few weeks, several potential flaws with enzymes and virus structures have already been discovered in Poland and Germany.

Thousands of brains and hundreds of computers are actively crunching algorithms into actionable data. The walls of the lab have come down, and government red tape has been cut with a scalpel. Clinical trials have already commenced, and researchers from China to the United States are exploring novel approaches that may produce positive results.

However, when a COVID-19 vaccine is found, it is unlikely to result in a windfall for shareholders and corporate bottom lines. Indeed, the public outcry could result in significant anti-patent reforms. Rights holders, which given current collaborative efforts will likely involve multiple parties, will need to proceed with caution. Indeed, European governments have already signaled they want whoever develops an effective vaccine to share it with the world.

For more on vaccine and medical patents, contact Global Patent Solutions at (877) 274-2011.