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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shows off a ventilator during a press conference in New York on March 24, 2020.CAITLIN OCHS/Reuters

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 an additional $500-million in cash 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 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," Mr. Volpe 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," he said. “We’re in very serious discussions with a few companies on making material commitments to do this in Canada in short order.”

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

Last week Mr. Volpe voiced concern about 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 the medical firms’ concerns.

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.”

The legislation says 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 might 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 there are no hindrances at this time to medical device makers sharing intellectual property, but “this is a very helpful backstop."

Jim Hinton, a patent lawyer based in Kitchener, Ont., said the United States and Canada already have patent law provisions that allow for “compulsory licensing" of drugs under certain conditions. “It’s sort of a commandeering vehicle in emergency cases,” he said, adding that governments rarely “if ever” act on the provisions.

“I think it would be very limited to situations where it’s absolutely required and necessary. [The patent holders are] still getting compensated, just not in the way that they want to,” Mr. Hinton said.

He said a negotiated licence or business arrangement with the patent holder and manufacturers are preferable to the “heavy-handed approach” of legislation, because patent-holding companies “are going to try to preserve their rights to be able to extract royalties whenever and however much they want.”

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

Last Saturday, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, Howard Njoo, said there are about 5,000 ventilators across Canada.

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

He said Canada can’t rely on foreign suppliers to procure ventilators quickly. New York State is experiencing a burst of infections and 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,” Mr. Volpe said.

Given the prospect of compulsory licensing, however, Medtronic, one of the world’s largest producers of ventilators, said it would be best if the company instead cranks up production at its existing facilities in Galway, Ireland, where it sources more than 1,500 components from more than 100 suppliers in 14 countries.

“We believe the fastest way to get additional ventilators into hospitals is for us to leverage and grow our existing infrastructure,” the company said in an email to The Globe and Mail. The company expects to be able to more than double its manufacturing capacity for ventilators in Galway “with a strong commitment across Medtronic and our suppliers” as well as increased staffing.

With a report from Canadian Press

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