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Emergency coronavirus bill could help auto parts firms retool to produce ventilators

Steven Chase, The Globe and Mail
March 24, 2020

Canada’s emergency coronavirus legislation includes measures that could help auto parts makers retool their factories to produce life-saving ventilators for desperately ill COVID-19 patients.

The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act would amend Canada’s Patent Act to grant the federal Health Minister new powers to authorize the manufacture of patented inventions “to respond to the public health emergency.”

It also provides $500-million for the provinces that could be used, among other things, to purchase sorely needed medical equipment.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said he’s confident companies in his industry will soon be poised to help medical-technology makers boost the production of everything from ventilators to respirators.

“We are talking about converting an industry in days – a process that would normally take months or years,” he said.

“I expect later this week or into next week we are going to see commercial agreements put in place together with procurement officials at both levels of government to start the process of retooling.

“We’re in very serious discussions with a few companies on making material commitments to do this in Canada in short order.”

This could include helping medical-technology companies expand their own factories.

Last week Mr. Volpe wondered whether medical-technology firms would share the intellectual property – such as the engineering specifications – necessary to enable such production. He said auto parts makers are willing to sign licensing agreements and non-compete deals to allay concerns over the sharing of IP.

But “in the last two or three days, we’ve got a few ventilator companies that are serious about solving this problem with us,” he said. “They are sharing their specifications with us.”

With its COVID-19 legislation, the government is saying the Commissioner of Patents shall “on application of the Minister of Health, authorize the Government of Canada and any person specified in the application, to make, construct, use and sell a patented invention to the extent necessary to respond to a public health emergency that is a matter of national concern.”

This would enable Ottawa to boost the production of necessary goods that would otherwise be hindered by patents.

Mr. Volpe said this measure shows “how serious the government is about motivating collaborations to meet needs nobody has scaled for.”

He said that while there are no hindrances at this time to sharing intellectual property for medical-device production by auto parts makers, “this is a very helpful backstop.”

Ventilators are medical devices that allow people suffering breathing problems to continue taking in oxygen. Countries hard hit by the novel coronavirus, such as Italy, have found themselves short of such vital equipment.

Last Saturday, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Howard Njoo, told media at an Ottawa briefing that there are currently about 5,000 ventilators across Canada.

Mr. Volpe said he’s been promised by federal and Ontario officials that the money will be available to fund production.

Last week, a study by Toronto epidemiologists suggested that Ontario could run out of intensive care beds and ventilators by late April, even assuming a sharp drop in the current infection rate.

Mr. Volpe said Canada can’t rely on foreign suppliers to procure ventilators quickly. New York state, which is experiencing a burst of infections right now, is in the international market trying to buy up everything available. “Their procurement agents are out trying to collect 50,000 to 60,000 ventilators.”

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