The History of Coronavirus in Patent Literature
What can patent data tell us about the world’s past research and response to Coronaviruses (CoV)?
In this article, I present a brief survey of patent filings that reference “Coronavirus” or “Corona virus” in their title, abstract or claims. I then compare the same set to those having keywords for both SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
A survey of the academic literature containing mentions of “Coronavirus” or “Corona virus” will likely provide similar results. However, what makes our focus on patents different, is that these search terms are associated with innovations that the developer of the science believes to have the most commercial potential, going beyond just research, and into action.
What Can We Infer from the Patent Data?
For one, Coronaviruses refer to a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as SARS and MERS. When looking through the history of patent literature, the first reference to Coronavirus I could find is US4211771 (Treatment of human viral diseases with 1-B-D-ribofuranosyl-1,2,4-triazole-3-carboxamide), which claims a 1971 priority date. Since then, we find about 3,200 patent families that mention Coronavirus in their title, abstract or claims, and over 17,000 patent families that mention Coronavirus in their full text.
Looking at the levels of activity in this area since 1971, we see a peak of 1,207 patent families mentioning Coronavirus in 2003, the year after the SARS outbreak. Since then we’ve seen one other year (2005) breaching the 1,000 mark, with several others coming close. The significant drop from 2018 reflects the fact that patents take roughly 18 months (or longer) to publish, however, these numbers will increase as more patents become public. Based on the trends of previous years, we can expect that we’ll find new patent families publishing at a clip of around 800 per year over this period.
Patent Literature Response After SARS and MERS Outbreaks
Second, the response to SARS and MERS epidemics as reflected in the patent data was almost immediate. The chart above shows three data series charted together. The purple series shows patents containing keywords for Coronavirus. The blue and green series show the same set constrained for keywords related to MERS and SARS respectively.
Coronavirus has been researched by entities from the commercial, government and academic sectors. Unlike in the chart above, the data are much flatter with 85 unique entities having filed at least 10 patent families that mention Coronavirus in the last 20 years.
Topics covered in the patents where Coronavirus is explicitly mentioned in the independent claims include: compositions, anti-viral, vaccines, testing and detection and many directed to swine and canine infections.
Finally, about 1200 patent families were filed in the last 10 years where “Coronavirus” is mentioned in close proximity to “vaccine” or “anti-viral” in the title, abstract or claims.
Innovation Amid COVID-19
21st-century science will likely play a small role in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, but at least these data shows that the scientific community has responded almost immediately to previous epidemics and has investigated methods and compounds for detection, prevention, and treatment of Coronaviruses.
In the meantime, dependable methods of intervention such as practicing social distancing, washing our hands, disinfecting surfaces, and isolating yourself if you are ill will be our best chance of minimizing the impact of COVID-19.
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