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The rapid innovation response to COVID-19 and the role of IP

Key insights from the research

Skim the research and analysis in 3 minutes.

Key Messages

1. IP drove the creation of the background technology used to develop COVID-19 solutions. 


  • When the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was background technology and knowledge that could be applied to address the crisis. 

  • These provided the foundation to rapidly develop new vaccines and treatments, and to test existing ones for relevance to COVID-19. They existed thanks to sizeable R&D investments made in the past, enabled by IP protection.

  • There were diverse promising technologies to apply to the COVID-19 response. This is because IP systems stimulate design-around, or efforts to develop different ways to solve the same problem. The diversity of promising compounds and platforms available were used to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments in an unprecedented amount of time. 

  • Innovators drew on existing vaccine platforms, monoclonal antibodies, and manufacturing technologies and related expertise. Some had been developed by public sector researchers. 

2. IP enabled collaboration, which was crucial to the rapid innovation of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics to fight the pandemic. 


  • Time was of the essence and innovators jumped in to address the crisis together with their peers in the biopharma innovation ecosystem. Collaboration was important in order to move quickly.

  • IP rights enabled a safe environment for innovators to immediately share proprietary technology and knowledge with partners – including competitors. They did so with the confidence that their IP assets, whether patents or trade secrets, were protected under IP and contract laws. This reduced the risk they would lose the IP and thus competitive advantage. 

  • They also shared a culture of innovation and respect for IP with their partners. Trust built over time indicated that what they shared would not be misappropriated. 

  • Stable IP frameworks allowed partnerships to come together rapidly, in some cases even before the details of the working relationship had been worked out.

3. IP enabled important investments in bringing new COVID-19 technologies to society. 


  • Developing drugs is costly and risky at every stage from lab to market.

  • IP protection enables investment in R&D ventures – this includes the COVID-19 response. At every step towards bringing COVID-19 vaccines and technologies to society, sizeable investments were needed.

  • Companies drew on earnings from past innovation successes to finance COVID-19 R&D and commercialization activities. 

  • Innovators moved resources away from other projects in order to urgently address COVID-19. Redirecting manpower and investments to COVID-19 projects was costly and risky. 

  • IP was crucial to secure investments and collaboration between different actors, including those from the public and private sectors. Bringing a treatment to market requires a division of labor between research institutions, startups, large companies, contract manufacturers, suppliers, and others.

  • Innovators invested in developing new solutions, in testing them and securing regulatory approval, in identifying and vetting manufacturing partners, in setting up value chains and distribution networks, and in continuous monitoring and improvement of the COVID-19 solutions themselves. 

4. Technology transfer happened rapidly and on a broad scale in response to COVID-19. 

  • Technology transfer happened at a speed previously unseen, as reported by those with years of industry experience. For example, Pfizer, BioNTech, and Novartis developed a novel manufacturing process for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in roughly four months, even though mRNA vaccines had never been made at commercial scale. 

  • Technology transfer at the different stages of development and commercialization was supported by IP protection, as IP assets were rapidly shared and licensed. 

  • When it came time to manufacture billions of doses, manufacturing partners were rapidly identified and vetted, and global contract manufacturing organization (CMO) and distribution networks were rapidly established. 

  • Technology transfer was integral to rapidly bringing many contract manufacturing partners (CMOs) into geographically distributed value chains, in order to rapidly scale production of vaccines. IP enabled technology and knowledge sharing.

  • As of August 2021, there are 45 contract manufacturing partnerships (reported publicly) around the world for the Pfizer, J&J, Moderna, and AZ vaccines.

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