23 March 2021
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The European Patent Office (EPO) recently published its 2020 Patent Index which provides a comprehensive overview of the figures representing recent activity in the global patent system and also offers insights into emerging technology trends. Overall, the Index shows that new patent filings in Europe in 2020 remained at pre-pandemic levels (just 0.7% below the record levels in 2019). We explore some of the key trends in more detail.

Life sciences

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these data reflect a strong increase in patent filings in the life sciences. Medical technology accounted for the highest number of new patent filings in 2020, taking the top spot from ‘digital communications’ with a jump of 2.6%. Among these, the largest applicant, filing 781 patents, was Johnson & Johnson, who have recently had their single-shot COVID-19 vaccine approved for use by the European Union. Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology comfortably remained in the top 10 technical fields of 2020, with new filings showing huge increases of 10.2% and 6.3% respectively.


However, the extent to which these trends can be attributed to the pandemic remains to be seen. Filings in pharmaceuticals have increased by >10% for the last 4 years and a similar pattern can be seen for biotech and medical technology filings. It may be that COVID-19 is instead responsible for more subtle shifts in subject matter within these fields. However it will be interesting to see whether this trend continues or even accelerates over the next few years as the pandemic drives high levels of investment and innovation in healthcare.

Digital communication and computer technology

Despite losing the top spot, new filings in digital communication and computer technology experienced increases over 2019 and remained strong, (second and third highest, respectively) with the top 3 applicants at the EPO being Samsung, Huawei and LG. New filings in audio-visual technology were also up by 4.6%, possibly fuelled by investment in technologies benefiting changing working and communicating habits that could be here to stay.


In 2020 there was a 5.5% decline in transport filings. Filings in transport have increased year on year for the past 10 years (except a ~0.3% decrease in 2017) so this seems likely to be a direct consequence of the pandemic. This decline seems driven largely by reduced filings from the US and Japan, but again it will be interesting to see whether this decline will be reversed as we recover from the pandemic.

EP filing origins

In 2020, 45% of EP filings originated from EPO states and just over a quarter originated from the US. Total applications from EPO member states showed a slight decline since 2019 (~1.3%). However, applicants from EPO states posted significant growth in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, which increased by 15% and 4.5% respectively. 2020 was no exception to the recent trend, which is seeing an increase in applications from China and South Korea. Although the overall percentage of biotech applications originating from China remains small (~5% of total), filings in 2020 experienced a 75% increase, in addition to increased filings in organic fine chemistry and energy technologies. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues post-pandemic as innovation in China continues to focus in these areas.


Watch the EPO's Patent Index 2020 summary video

Heading into 2021

Although the full extent to which COVID-19 has impacted long term trends in new filings remains uncertain, these data suggest that the demand for patent protection in 2021 and beyond will remain high. As summarised by EPO President António Campinos; “because innovation, supported by a strong IP system, is the motor of recovery, in every sense of the word".


View the full EPO 2020 Patent Index.

Sarah is an associate patent attorney working as part of our life sciences team. She has a degree in Biological Sciences from Oxford University. She completed her PhD at Warwick University in plant pathology looking at how pathogen effectors manipulate the plant immune response. Sarah then worked as a post-doc in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at York University on plant responses to biotic stress.

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