Protecting IP during COVID-19 product innovation

May 2020

Protecting IP during COVID-19 product innovation

The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and resulting respiratory illness COVID-19, has led to a global shortage of medical and personal protective equipment (PPE). This has been particularly evident in medical institutions and has demonstrated a need for a dramatic increase in PPE production capacity.

As a result, many manufacturers in the UK who are otherwise involved in a wide array of other commercial activities have focussed their efforts to on the short-term production of PPE to support healthcare professions, such as the NHS. Others are working on bringing new ventilators to market to help meet the current shortfall.

In the third article of our COVID-19 series, we look at the protection of IP as manufacturers innovate and develop new products at speed in the fight against coronavirus.

COVID-19 transmission

It is currently thought that the transmission of COVID-19 primarily occurs via respiratory droplets expelled from a person during exhaling, coughing, sneezing or the like, which gain access to the human body, and particularly the lungs, through facial openings such as the nostrils or the mouth. As such, face masks are a form of PPE deemed invaluable in limiting the spread of the virus from infected patients to medical practitioners responsible for treating, and for caring for, those most severely affected by the affliction.

It is preferable for medical professionals to utilise PPE exhibiting full facial coverage such that the eyes, for example, are not exposed to a potentially harmful environment. Third party manufacturers have been utilising their manufacturing capacity to produce visors for use by healthcare professionals.

3D printing has become a staple technique in such efforts, particularly for optimising and mass-producing headbands. The masks themselves are instead typically laser cut in sheets. It is notable that manufacturers with access to 3D printers and similar devices are also producing a variety of products to aid in the reduction of viral transmission on surfaces such as attachments to door handles to facilitate opening a door without hand contact.

Pressure on ventilator supplies

Additionally, there is a global shortage of life-saving apparatus required for the mechanical intervention of COVID-19 patients. As such, many governments across the world are turning to other sectors to aid in the manufacture of ventilators.

Not only have many engineering manufacturers ceased production of their trade goods in order to produce ventilators, but numerous developments in ventilator technology have been observed since the outbreak of the virus in order to support those most affected. For example, a field ventilator has recently been developed to aid people in impoverished countries. This field ventilator fits into a briefcase-like transport case and includes a windscreen wiper motor and a typical ambulance bag as a means of ventilation. It is therefore cheap to produce. The field ventilator appears to be operable using solar and wind power, making it ideal for use in remote areas, and has been brought from conception to testing in a matter of weeks.

Another notable development includes ATMO-Vent, a prototype ventilator heavily inspired by life-support systems utilised by astronauts, developed by a team that typically designs apparatus for use in space exploration. ATMO-Vent is reportedly awaiting certification for medical use and has been designed to fully comply with UK regulations. It is claimed that, upon receiving certification, ATMO-Vent will provide a highly efficient means of ventilator production, in relation to both time and money, and is reported to be relatively user-friendly. Such developments of ventilator technology clearly demonstrate the collective effort undertaken by a wide array of organisations to overcome the threat posed by SARS-CoV-2.

IP infringements on medical equipment

Despite the clear need in the current climate for manufacturers to support healthcare systems as exemplified above, a concern of IP infringement would usually remain.

Medical devices, such as components included in ventilators, are usually protected by a patent where possible. Some governments, however, have announced that IP rights will not be allowed to penalise those assisting in the effort against SARS-CoV-2. In particular, the UK government has pledged to protect designers and manufacturers of ventilators against claims of IP infringement.

As many manufacturers now involved in the rapid production of ventilators are new to the field, they cannot be expected to study the IP landscape to ensure that their product does not conflict with earlier rights whilst also promptly developing their product and getting it to market to help save lives. How such issues may be resolved after the current pandemic, should ventilator products continue to be produced, seems unclear.

For further information regarding intellectual property related to potential COVID-19 treatments, please contact Charlotte Watkins at docketing@secerna.co.uk

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