Restart Radio Republished: When “intellectual property” is lethal

A Glia face shield

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This month, we are revisiting the topic of medical repair and reuse. Our interview was originally published more than a year ago but the issues at hand have not been fixed. We spoke to Dr Tarek Loubani and his colleague, Reidun Garapick about how perspectives need to change so that reuse of medical equipment is the norm. An example of this is the reusable face shield they developed. Loubani and Garapick both work at the Glia Project, a charity that focuses on producing low-cost medical devices with no intellectual property barriers.

A sustainable solution for PPE

Lack of PPE has been an ongoing issue abroad and also here in the UK, particularly during the first wave. Loubani shared his thoughts as to why it is so difficult to convince people of the power of reuse. He says the issue is very noticeable in medical settings. Here, understandable fears of contamination were overcoming the practical and safe solution of reusable gowns and masks.

Drawing on his experience working on the frontlines in Gaza, Loubani explained how this standard of disposable PPE is simply. Instead, they aim to reuse and repair equipment safely and sustainably. 

The Glia Project developed a reusable face shield that would help begin to solve the problem of lack of supplies in hospitals. However, it has not been easy to distribute them. Garapick told us about the resistance from hospitals to accept them, even when they had completely run out of their own supplies. The problem lies in the difficulty to get these products authorised by regulatory bodies. The Glia Project is also currently working on designing accessible versions of other essential devices including respirators and pulse oximeters. 

The urgent need for collaboration

Garapick also discusses the urgent need for open-source and accessible information. Laws around patents and intellectual property (IP) are seriously hindering repair, innovation and progress that could save lives. If manufacturers made it more accessible and legal to build on their previous designs, new tools could be developed much more quickly. 

Later on, we discuss how IP is stopping biomedical technicians from repairing devices in hospitals. Ventilators remain out of use because the manuals and spare parts to repair them are not available and protected by IP rules. In places like Tanzania, this problem is widespread, and can hurt a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, for example.

How intellectual property can be lethal

A newer issue that comes to mind in this conversation is that of intellectual property patents on vaccines. As wealthier countries begin to see the hopeful effects of rapid vaccine rollouts, the global disparity is stark. In poorer nations, the predicted date for when vaccine supplies might be available is as late as 2024. Last month, the WHO’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that only 0.3% of vaccine doses so far had been given to people in low-income countries. 

As a result, many countries have asked for a temporary waiver to suspend WTO rules around patents on pharmaceuticals. India is asking for this, with its shortage of vaccines directly contributing to a devastating new wave of the virus. The waiver would allow for any country with the technical capacity and resources to produce vaccines themselves. The UK and Europe have still not agreed to this proposal.

Medical repairs beyond the pandemic

The need for collaboration and sharing of resources and tools is still as crucial as ever. Loubani shared with us his worries that we will forget the lessons that we learned about sustainability and innovation once this passes. We cannot let this happen. Instead, we must push for system change that will aid in the essential repairs that need to be done worldwide – during the pandemic and when it is finally over. 

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[Photo courtesy of the Glia Project]

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