Whilst coronavirus restrictions have posed many difficult challenges to business, it is interesting to observe the many and varied initiatives undertaken in response to the pandemic.
In this article we share some innovative developments designed to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Governments back a boost to local medical device manufacturing
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an Australian government task force led by the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has set a target to increase the number of operational ventilators in Australia to 7,500 by the end of June 2020.1 This would enable hospitals to treat what, at the beginning of April 2020, was expected to be a peak of 5,000 patients requiring admission into intensive care in Australian hospitals due to severe coronavirus infection.2 With many countries around the world purchasing large numbers of ventilators, global demand has outstripped supply, and many countries are looking beyond their usual import routes to source this lifesaving equipment.3
In response to the challenge of sourcing ventilators from overseas, the international medical device manufacturer ResMed is increasing the production of ventilators at its Western Sydney premises.4 The Federal government has commissioned 5,500 of these ventilators, which are to be distributed throughout the national healthcare system as required.5
Meanwhile, a consortium of manufacturing and engineering companies with operations in Australia have joined forces to start making ventilators through the 'Notus Emergency Invasive Ventilator Program' (the Notus Program).6 Funding for the program has been secured in part through grants from the Federal and Victorian governments of $31.3m and $500,000 respectively.7 The consortium is also supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, a non-profit organisation which seeks to make Australia's manufacturing sector more competitive.8
Led by Grey Innovation, each company in the consortium plays a role in providing the various parts and services needed to manufacture ventilators. The businesses involved include Bosch Australia's Manufacturing Solutions division, which will develop equipment to test the ventilators.9
Notus Program ventilators take advantage of interim authorisation from the ACCC
Ordinarily, this degree of cooperation between competitor businesses might involve prohibited cartel conduct. The restrictions on "cartel conduct" can be found in Part IV, Division 1, of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth). Broadly speaking, these provisions prohibit businesses who are ordinarily in competition with each other from coordinating with one another, particularly in relation to price fixing, bid rigging, restricting outputs in the production and supply chain, or market sharing by allocating customers, suppliers or territories.
As we reported here and here, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has granted numerous "interim authorisations" allowing various industries to provide co-ordinated responses to the COVID-19 disruption and engage in conduct that, without an authorisation, might have otherwise been considered prohibited cartel conduct.
On 25 March 2020, the ACCC granted an authorisation sought by the Medical Technology Association of Australia to allow its members and other groups, such as suppliers or distributors of medical equipment, to share information between each other, co-ordinate orders and supply requests, prioritise requests, and jointly tender to supply COVID-19 medical equipment.10 On 23 April 2020, Grey Innovation gave notice to the ACCC that it proposed to engage in conduct covered by this interim authorisation.11
Ventilators granted exemption from listing on Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods
The Federal government has recognised that regulatory hurdles may make it difficult for some ventilators to be quickly manufactured in Australia.12 Part 4 of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 (Cth) (TGA Act), requires ventilators and other medical devices for human use to meet strict criteria and be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) prior to their supply in Australia. However, where public health is threatened by an emergency, provisions in Part 4-6A of the TGA Act grant the Minister for Health the power to provide exemptions from these requirements, including where it is in the national interest to stockpile medical devices or make them urgently available.13
The Minister has exercised this power under the Therapeutic Goods (Medical Devices – Ventilators)(COVID-19 Emergency) Exemption 2020 (Cth) to ensure that ventilators which are being manufactured in Australia, but are not already ARTG listed, can be lawfully supplied.14 Whilst these ventilators are not required to be listed on the ARTG, manufacturers must comply with minimum technical requirements and other obligations, such as mandatory reporting of any malfunctions.15
The challenge of sourcing ventilators has required the cooperation of State and Federal government authorities and regulators. Additionally, the ability of businesses to shift their production to produce ventilator parts, in collaboration with businesses who might ordinarily be their competitors, has been essential to make Australia's goal of obtaining 7,500 ventilators feasible.
A collaborative development to protect frontline medical staff
Researchers at the University of Melbourne and Western Health have collaborated to develop a fully functional prototype for a portable ventilation hood that effectively isolates COVID-19 infected patients from medical staff within clear plastic shells, with the goal of preventing the spread of infection within hospitals.16
Associate Professor Forbes McGain, an intensive care specialist at Western Health, instigated the project and approached Professor Jason Monty, the Head of Department and a Professor with the Fluid Mechanics Group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Melbourne, to assist.17 The hoods have been designed to capture droplets of fluids expelled by the patient through coughs and sneezes, while smaller particles liberated as patients breathe are removed by a built-in high-efficiency particulate air filter.18 The clear plastic hood allows for visual observation of the patient by medical staff.19
The final prototype has been tested by fluid dynamics researchers, alongside nurses and medical specialists.20 Patient trials will commence at Western Health hospitals in the coming months with the hope that there will be widespread adoption of the device.21 The team has deliberately designed the hood prototypes with low-cost components to make the device more cost-effective and accessible for hospitals in low to middle income countries.22
Hands-free solutions with ongoing application
Welsh freelance design engineer Wyn Griffiths has shown that highly beneficial and cost-effective innovation can also be simple. Following a visit to a hospital with his wife, noting that COVID-19 might spread via contact with door handles, Mr Griffiths developed some 3D models for hands-free door openers.23
The door handle adaptors are made from plastic and are designed to be fixed to a door handle with a protruding curved hook to grasp a person's forearm. Together these features enable the opening of doors without direct hand contact; a solution delivered at a fraction of the cost of an electronic alternative.24 His designs can be made quickly by 3D printers at low cost.25 Mr Griffiths has since uploaded his design to the internet and says he hopes that "people who have a 3D printer can help out their local hospital or anywhere the public visits by distributing these around."26
A device with a similar purpose, known as the "hygienehook", has been developed in London by designer Steve Brooks.27 Unlike Mr Griffiths' design which attaches to a single door handle, the hygienehook is pocket-sized and designed to be carried around by individuals and used solely by them. The device resembles a clothes hanger and is made from an easy to clean, non-porous material. For each hook he sells, Mr Brooks is donating one hook to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.
In the future, we might well see modified door handles such as these used in hospital and aged-care settings to protect vulnerable people from infections of all kinds.
We have commented on just some of the many innovations developed in response to the spread of COVID-19. The work of these innovators, and many others, leaves our society far better placed to respond to the coronavirus disruption.
1. Sean Rubinsztein, Sarah Curnow and Jeremy Story Carter, 'The Race to be Ready', ABC News (online), 15 April 2020 (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-14/inside-australias-race-to-prepare-for-the-worst-of-coronavirus/12140878?nw=0).
4. Darren Gray, 'ResMed Modifies Factories, Triples Ventilator Production', The Sydney Morning Herald (online), 26 March 2020 (https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/resmed-modifies-factories-triples-ventilator-production-20200326-p54e6l.html).
5. Carrie LaFrenz, 'ResMed Ready for COVID-19 Waves After Ramping Up Ventilators', The Australian Financial Review (online), 1 May 2020 (https://www.afr.com/companies/healthcare-and-fitness/resmed-ready-for-covid-19-waves-after-ramping-up-ventilator-production-20200430-p54orp).
6. Grey Innovation, 'Grey Innovation Secures $31m Federal Government Contract for Industry Consortium to Build Ventilators in Victoria' (Media Release, 9 April 2020) (https://www.greyinnovation.com/newsroom/article/21/grey-innovation-secures-31m-federal-government-contract-for-industry-consortium-to-build-ventilators-in-victoria.html).
7. The Hon Karen Andrews MP, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology (Cth), 'Industry Consortium to Manufacture 2000 Ventilators' (Media Release, 9 April 2020) (https://www.minister.industry.gov.au/ministers/karenandrews/media-releases/industry-consortium-manufacture-2000-ventilators).
8. Sharon Masige, '"We Can't Do It Alone": A Group of Australian Manufacturing Businesses Have Banded Together to Make Ventilators for the Fight Against the Coronavirus', Business Insider Australia (online) 23 April 2020 (https://www.businessinsider.com.au/ventilator-manufacturing-australia-2020-4).
9. Australian Manufacturing Technology Institute Limited, 'Bosch Signs Up for COVID-19 Ventilator Project' (Media Release, 23 April 2020) (https://amtil.com.au/bosch-ventilators-covid19-amtil/).
10. Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, 'Cooperation to Aid Supply of COVID-19 Medical Equipment' (Media Release, 25 March 2020) (https://www.accc.gov.au/media-release/cooperation-to-aid-supply-of-covid-19-medical-equipment).
11.Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, 'Notification of Participants Engaging in Conduct' (Notice, 23 April 2020): (https://www.accc.gov.au/system/files/public-registers/documents/Notification%20of%20participants%20engaging%20in%20conduct%20-%2023.04.20%20-%20PR%20-%20AA1000479%20-%20MTAA_0.pdf).
12. Department of Health - Therapeutic Goods Administration, 'Ventilator for COVID-19 Use in Australia' (Media Release, 7 April 2020) (https://www.tga.gov.au/ventilator-covid-19-use-australia).
13. Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 (Cth) s 41GS(2).
14. See also, Department of Health - Therapeutic Goods Administration, 'Ventilators and Other Devices Intended for Respiratory Support for COVID-19' (Media Release, 4 May 2020), (https://www.tga.gov.au/behind-news/ventilators-and-other-devices-intended-respiratory-support-covid-19).
15. See section 6(b)(i) and section 6(c)(i) of the Therapeutic Goods (Medical Devices – Ventilators)(COVID-19 Emergency) Exemption 2020 (Cth).
16. University of Melbourne, 'Researchers Design Ventilation Hoods for Hospital Beds to Help Contain COVID-19 Spread' (Media Release, 9 April 2020) (https://about.unimelb.edu.au/newsroom/news/2020/april/researchers-design-ventilation-hoods-for-hospital-beds-to-help-contain-covid-19-spread).
19. Kate Prendergast, 'Ventilation Hoods for ICU Beds to Protect Healthcare Workers' Nursing Review (17 April 2020) ( https://www.nursingreview.com.au/2020/04/ventilation-hoods-for-icu-beds-to-protect-healthcare-workers/).
20. Above n 25.
27. Hygienehook Co, About Hygienehook (accessed 12 May 2020) (https://www.hygienehook.co.uk/); Peter Beech, 'These New Gadgets Were Designed to Fight COVID-19' World Economic Forum, 5 April 2020 (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/).
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.