Although some, like US and European governments, would like to pretend it isn't happening, it's no secret that there has been a huge increase in international patent applications claiming bits and pieces of H5N1 viruses and related vaccines and other treatments.
The overall trends can be monitored by searching on PatentScope, a free international patent application database published by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). If you are new to patents, it might be intimidating at first - patent talk is not plain English - but with a bit of experimentation, searching PatentScope is something anyone can learn to do.
There are three such searches that I have been monitoring for nearly two years now. The results aren't pretty, and they are getting worse. The tidal wave of H5N1 patent claims shows no signs of abating, and is on track in 2008 to meet or exceed 2007, which was already the biggest year of such patent claims on record.
The trend is clear: An emerging "patent thicket" threatens to impair H5N1 research and make vaccines and other treatments unaffordable. But don't count on the US or European governments doing anything about this - they're still in denial mode.
The first search is a simple query of the International Patent Classification for influenza vaccines (PCT Class A61K 39/145). This search includes seasonal and animal vaccines. Here's the result (click on the image to enlarge):
In 2007, there were 54 patent publications on influenza vaccines. (Patent applications are published months or even years after they are actually filed) In 2008, to date, 33 new patent applications have appeared. Over 36% of all applications since 1983 for influenza vaccines (118 of 326) have been published since 1 January 2006. If this isn't a hug increase in patent claims, what is?
The second search is a bit more specific. It is a search of the same patent class, except restricting the results to those applications that contain the term "H5N1" in the patent claims (a specific and most important part of the application). Understand that you can still patent an H5N1 vaccine without specifically mentioning H5N1 in the claims (e.g. a vaccine against all influenza A types); but the appearance of H5N1 in the claims gives some potential indication of the intent of the applicant:
Here an interesting thing to immediately note is that although H5N1 first appeared in 1997, there was only one patent application matching the search until 2006. There is recent dramatic growth in H5N1-related claims. In 2006 there were five claims, followed by eleven in 2007, and seven in 2008 to date. US and EU companies account for nearly all applications (see below).
The third search broadens the horizon beyond vaccines. It includes vaccines, medicines, diagnostics, genes, and pieces thereof wherein the term H5N1 appears in the claims. (Geeks: PCT Classifications A61K/P, C07H/K, C12N/Q, G01N.) Here again, there is a tremendous spike in patent claims:
The amazing thing here is that between 1983 and September 2008, 102 total matching patent applications were published, and of these applications, 83 were published after 1 Jan 2007. That is, more than 80% of the matching patent applications over the last nearly 25 years have appeared in the last 18 months.
And where do these patent applications come from? Hint: It's not the Indonesians that are making proprietary claims over H5N1 viruses, it's the Americans and Europeans. A whopping 53% of these patent applications originate the US, and most of the rest come from Europe. What little is left over primarily comes from Australia, Japan, and Singapore.
The results here speak for themselves. Developing countries like Indonesia are not the people trying to privatize H5N1. In fact, the real culprits of ownership claims over Bird Flu are the companies and government labs of Europe and North America.
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