About Covidex intellectual property

Author, Ms Jackie Nankinga. PHOTO/FILE/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

  • Ms Jackie Nankinga says: The solution to boosting Uganda’s levels of innovations lies in government support, utilisation of intellectual property rights... 

Globally, scientists are camping in laboratories to find a solution to the Covid-19 pandemic. Sometime in 2020, Dr Patrick Engeu Ogwang, an associate professor of Pharmacy at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), and a team of other researchers under PHARMABIOTRAC developed a herbal biomedical invention called Covidex.

This innovation is said to be a broad spectrum natural remedy intended to manage and treat the Covid-19 virus. 

The research in its advanced stages was leaked to the Ugandan market and is currently in circulation in different drug stores.

Unfortunately, the National Drug Authority (NDA) and MUST have made press releases for the withdraw of the leaked product from the market. They have also informed the general public that Covidex has not yet received the necessary approval as a Covid-19 treatment, therefore, all the generic manufacturers and suppliers should seek further guidance from the NDA. 

Principally, by virtue of Section 19 (1) of the Industrial Property Act, 2014 of Uganda, it is legally presumed that any invention developed in the execution of a commission or by an employee during the subsistence of their employment contract belongs to the commissioner or employer respectively. Therefore, MUST’s claim of ownership of the intellectual property in Covidex in their June 14 press release, is justified. Who owns the intellectual property in the university depends on the institutional IP policies.

However, given the exceptional importance of the invention in these Covid-19 prevalent times, Dr Ogwang enjoys the right to equitable remuneration for the invention and the right to be named as an inventor provided that such rights are not waived. 

The process of drug development is not only complex but also expensive. Common practice is that corporations and institutions employ intellectual property management strategies in order to recover the costs of the development process and hopefully earn more profits. After the necessary clinical trials and approval from the National Drug Authority, acquisition of a patent for the process and the finished product can be sought.

It is advisable that the patent is sought at the early stages of development of the first efficient molecules and at every incremental stage of the innovation. 

Patent protection is territorial in nature, this means that if one files a patent in Uganda, they only receive protection against infringement in Uganda only. Nevertheless, there is also an international patent filing system managed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation where protection is granted in the applicant’s target countries. During the life of the patent, the right holders must strategically manage the patent to maximize its utility as a tool for attracting investment and consolidation of resources. 

The patented AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine registered its 2021 first quarter earnings as $275 million. I know what you are thinking, how much more would a patented herbal, natural plant based or traditional medicine earn? 

In my opinion, if such medicine is highly efficient and has lesser or no side effects than those on the market then its sales projections will be higher. One of the indicators of innovation activity of a country is the number of patents or utility models filed at the National Intellectual Property office. There has been a decline in the number of patents filed at the Uganda Registration Services Bureau. 

In 2020, the World Health Organisation pledged technical and financial support to innovators of African traditional and alternative medicines for the development of potential Covid-19 treatments and collaborate with some African countries like Congo in developing a Covid-19 remedy from a medicinal plant called Artemisia annua. 

Therefore, the solution to boosting Uganda’s levels of innovations lies in government support, utilisation of intellectual property rights and institution collaborations viz product development partnerships (PDPs) between government, private biomedical or pharmaceutical firms, international organizations, traditional institutions and Universities or technology institutes. 

Expanding the role of universities to stimulating innovation and invention especially in environmental and life sciences and creating new knowledge to support innovators similar to Dr Ogwang and his team.

Ms Jackie Nankinga is  advocate of the High Court of Uganda with an intellectual property bias.