In March, with Italy days into its first nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, a hospital in Lombardy was running out of valves for respirators when a start-up called Isinnova came to the rescue by 3D-printing them.
But this feel-good story of human ingenuity has a darker side. Isinnova had approached the valves’ manufacturer for access to its blueprints, only to be told those were company property subject to a patent. It meant the start-up team had to reverse-engineer the valves to make them.
Throughout the battle to end the pandemic, equitable global access to technologies and treatments has been a major concern. To this end the World Health Organisation set up the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool and the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator,as well as the more widely publicised funding pool for vaccine access, COVAX, to which Australia contributed $80 million from our aid budget, along with a series of other funding measures to help our neighbours in the Pacific and south-east Asia, including with vaccines. These commitments are admirable, and amount to a significant contribution to the wellbeing of our neighbours.
But with major pharmaceutical companies rolling out vaccines and millions of doses being bought by the United States, Britain, the European Union and Australia, developing countries argue such attempts to give them purchasing power in the market will only go so far. In October, India and South Africa asked the World Trade Organisation to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) protections so that vaccines and other equipment for fighting COVID-19 could be made more cheaply at greater scale. Australia joined Britain, the US and the EU in opposing the move, arguing that existing rules on licensing would be sufficient to meet demand.