Patenting to Fight Pandemics: The Canadian Story

Patenting to Fight Pandemics: The Canadian Story

This blog was originally published here.

COVID-19 first appeared in December 2019. By March 2020, the virus was spreading around the world with increasing speed, leading the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic.[i] The spread of the virus has had profound impacts on nations around the world, and researchers have mobilized resources at an unprecedented scale to address COVID-19.

Canada has had a comprehensive response to this pandemic. Taking into account total expenses associated with measures announced as of September 1, 2020, the Government of Canada is expected to spend an estimated $225.9 billion in COVID response measures.[ii] This includes spending related to Federal fiscal stimulus and other initiatives to support Canadian individuals and businesses.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC), Canada's largest federal research and development (R&D) organization, is leading one such initiative. The NRC is partnering with industries to identify technologies that could help in the fight against COVID, and take this research from the lab to the marketplace. This includes three Challenge Programs to respond to the needs of healthcare providers and Canadians.[iii]

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) has partnered with the NRC to understand the current state of play of patenting in the three research areas of NRC's Pandemic Response Challenge Program. These include: Therapeutics and Vaccine Development, Rapid Detection and Diagnosis, and Digital Health. More than 11,000 patented inventions[1] between 1999 and 2018 were identified globally for technologies that could aid in the fight against COVID-19.[2] Of these, close to 8,500 patented inventions were found to be assigned to an institution and 178 patented inventions were attributed to Canadian institutions.[3]

Assigning patents to institutions allows for a comparison across jurisdictions with respect to the level of patenting. Currently, Canadian institutions hold the eighth largest patent portfolio in this field in the world.

Figure 1: Breakdown of the dataset analyzed for this report


Figure 2: Patent filing trend across the three research areas for international and Canadian institutions

The international and Canadian patent filing trend between 1999 and 2018 shows a dramatic increase in filings related to therapeutics and vaccine development immediately after the SARS outbreak. Filings related to rapid detection, diagnosis and digital health picked up after the H1N1 and MERS outbreaks. This illustrates an effort to be more proactive in containing a potential outbreak rather than simply dealing with resulting health impact and developing the preventive measure of a vaccine.

Figure 3: International patent filing trend for COVID-19 related technologies by institution's country of origin between 1999 and 2018

China and the United States have largely led the growth among leading countries for pandemic-mitigating technologies. However, it is encouraging to see Canadian institutions' growth being on par with leading innovative economies such as Germany and Japan.

Figure 4: Relative Specialization Index by institution's country of origin for COVID-19 related technologies

After gaining a better understanding of the international and Canadian institution trends for COVID-19 related technologies, it is interesting to look at just how specialized Canadian institutions are in this field when compared to institutions globally using an index known as the Relative Specialization Index (RSI). This measure uses patenting intensity to allow for patenting activity to be compared between countries of different sizes by comparing the country's share of patenting in a specific technology area to their share of all patents. Using this metric, Canada has one of the highest RSI values, indicating a very high specialization for pandemic and outbreak mitigation and fighting technologies.

Figure 5: Distribution of patented inventions across three research areas for international and Canadian institutions

A deeper look into the three research areas relating to NRC's Pandemic Response Challenge Program reveals that Canadian institutions are filing relatively more in therapeutics and vaccine development when compared to institutions globally. This is driving the strong showing of Canada in the RSI.

Figure 6: Canadian patent landscape map for COVID-19 related technologies

When we map the patent landscape by Canadian institutions, we can identify the key areas that experience high patent activity in pandemic and outbreak mitigation related technologies. Canada's strength in therapeutics and vaccine development is clear as it takes up almost two-thirds of the map. In addition, most of these areas are related to chemical compositions of vaccines which could indicate that Canadian institutions are specialized in the development of vaccines. It appears to leverage expertise within innate immunity, microbial infections, organ failure, immunosuppression, Duchene's dystrophy, metastatic bone disease, recombinant adenoviral technology, and others.

Figure 7: Patent filing trend for international institutions

Diving even deeper into therapeutics and vaccine development category reveals the patent intensity of the sub-categories over time. The bulk of the patent activity for this research area pertains to medical preparation. For this group of sub-categories, international and Canadian institutions had experienced an average annual growth of 66% and 89% respectively during the SARS outbreak. This patent activity reflects specialized knowledge within the institutions that can be leveraged in the future.

Table 1: Leading Canadian institutions and their top research area and inventor

Looking at the Canadian story, 15 of the top 18 leading Canadian institutions that have been actively patenting for pandemic and outbreak mitigation related technologies are working in the therapeutics and vaccine development areas. Table 1 also indicates the leading inventor associated with each Canadian institution. The therapeutics and vaccine development research area is comprised of biotech firms, larger universities primarily based in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, as well as universities that collaborate nationally or internationally (e.g. University of Manitoba). Canadian institutions are associated with a leading inventor that resides in Canada, pointing to the talent pool of qualified researchers in this field in Canada.

Future Work

CIPO will be publishing a more comprehensive IP Analytics report for this study in early 2021. This will include deeper dives into rapid detection, diagnosis and digital health. As contact tracing apps and consideration for at-home or personal tests are being explored, an increase of patenting activity in these areas is expected. CIPO intends to revisit these technologies in two or three years to better understand the role that patenting played in the fight against COVID-19 and whether this unprecedented global pandemic will result in a sustained and permanent increase in health-based innovation.

Written by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO)

[1] The term "patented invention" in this study refers to a patent family which represents a collection of similar patent applications filed across multiple jurisdictions. This is done to avoid double counting and focuses on inventive activity rather than market reach of the innovation.

[2] If interested, please contact CIPO at for a copy of the search strategy.

[3] In this analysis, institutions includes: businesses, government departments, colleges, universities, medical facilities and research organizations.