The role of patents in the pharmaceutical sector

Today, senior experts from the European Patent Office (EPO) met online with representatives of the European Alliance for Responsible R&D and Affordable Medicines to discuss aspects of the patent system in the pharmaceutical sector.

The discussion highlighted the importance of transparency and dialogue with civil society, especially when it comes to innovation with the potential to save lives and improve the well-being of millions of people. Participants exchanged on questions related to the patent granting process, with a focus on health-related technologies. The EPO invited the European Alliance to contribute to the public online user consultation on the Guidelines for Examination, which runs each year from February to April. The EPO also invited the European Alliance to participate in the activities of the Observatory on Patents and Technology. Lastly, the EPO and the Alliance engaged in a brief discussion on the EPO's co-operation activities with non-member states.

Patent databases: making information about technologies accessible to all

Every year, the EPO publishes millions of patent applications and granted patents from every technology field, providing free access to technical information that would not be available without the patent system. This is what makes the EPO’s free online public database Espacenet, with more than 140 million patent documents from over 100 countries, such an indispensable resource and a springboard for new inventions. Most patents in Espacenet are not in force, meaning that they are free for scientists and researchers to use.

Moreover, by publishing patent applications prior to grant or refusal, the public (including other scientists) can challenge the exclusive rights requested. Such challenges can take the form of “third-party observations”, which are free to submit without further involvement in the examination process. The public can also contest newly granted European patents through the opposition procedure, by becoming a party to proceedings to present their arguments for themselves. Such scrutiny, both pre- and post-grant, enables the public to contribute to the EPO’s goal of granting patents of the highest quality.

Making patent intelligence even more accessible

To build further on the transparency already enshrined in the patent system, numerous initiatives have been launched by the EPO over the years to make patent intelligence even more accessible, including the Fighting coronavirus platform launched in 2020. To date, EPO patent examiners and data analysts have compiled over 350 datasets to support the important research of clinicians, scientists and engineers, helping to advance the urgent search for vaccines, treatments and technologies that can counter the spread of disease and save lives. The EPO will also soon publish a report on mRNA vaccine technology, which saved millions of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The diversity of innovation ecosystems in the pharmaceutical sector is well served by the patent system as a crucial means for sharing knowledge among a large range of entities, including startups, SMEs, universities and public research organisations that develop valuable medicines in a variety of fields. The EPO will shortly inaugurate its new Observatory on Patents and Technology as a further advance in its open dialogue with civil society. The Observatory will look at the impact of the patent system on different segments of society and on a variety of technology areas, including healthcare. The Observatory’s first public event, which will be dedicated to startups, will be hosted online on 17 October 2023.