EU industry touts 3D printing as ‘immediate solution’ to COVID-19 shortages

A 3D printer prints a heart with human tissue, at the University of Tel Aviv, 15 April 2019. [EPA-EFE/STR]

The EU’s additive manufacturing sector is rallying the potential benefits of 3D printing technologies for aiding in the shortage of vital health equipment needed for treating coronavirus patients across Europe.

Analysts have highlighted Germany’s low COVID-19 death rate in relation to the substantial number of ventilators that have been made available to patients. The country is in possession of 25,000 ventilators, and has ordered a further 10,000 from the Dräger manufacturing company, to be produced over the next year. As of Wednesday evening, Germany had recorded 31 deaths from 12,327 cases.

Academics have drawn parallels between the widespread availability of ventilators and recovery rates from those who have contracted the virus. A February study from the Lancet respiratory journal found that equipment that aids or replaces a patient’s respiratory functions, such as ventilators, are the “main supportive treatment” for those in critical stages of the virus.

However, not all EU member states have a bountiful supply of such equipment as Germany. I

taly, for its part, has recorded close to 3,000 deaths so far, out of more than 35,000 cases. The country is experiencing a serious shortage of ventilators at hospital facilities, and as a result, health authorities have been turning to technology, rather than European political allies, for assistance.

In Brescia, a local 3D Printing company, Isinnova, was drafted in to help with a drastic shortage of ventilators at the city’s hospital. Within hours, the company was able to redesign and produce the missing value required. The firm managed to produce 100 life-saving respirators in a period of 24 hours.

Commission request to 3D printing industry

“In this time of need, the additive manufacturing sector can be an immediate solution for hospitals that are currently experiencing shortages in equipment or limited access to essential pieces for said equipment,” Filip Geerts, Director General of CECIMO, the European association for Additive Manufacturing, told EURACTIV.

He added however, that there are “legal constraints” in place that can stifle the roll out of such solutions, and that member states should consider “temporarily waiving some of the Medical Device Directive requirements for strategical goods during this period of crisis.”

The European Commission have recently asked CECIMO members to assist in “producing equipment” that European hospitals are lacking due to the coronavirus outbreak. Geerts informed EURACTIV that the association has put out a call for action among member companies, that has resulted in an “overwhelming” response from the European 3D Printing industry.

The process of 3D printing involves the digital construction of a three-dimensional object using a computer interface. The printing operates by adding successive ‘layers’ to the design, until the form is complete.

MEPs chime in

Meanwhile, Dutch centrist MEP Liesje Schreinemacher believes that the law should make provisions for the wider use of 3D printing in such emergency situations as the one Europe is currently going through.

“With governments and medical centres across Europe facing severe shortages of medical equipment due to COVID-19, 3D printing can provide a safe and reliable source of materials,” she told EURACTIV.

“Of course we have to protect copyright, but when it comes down to emergency situations which ultimately could save a persons life, the law should leave room to act accordingly.”

This line of thinking appears to be gaining traction amongst MEPs in Brussels. “Any aid that can speed up the production of life-saving medical devices should be fully activated immediately,” Slovak MEP Ivan Štefanec (EPP) told EURACTIV.

“The Commission should take extraordinary steps in this direction and allow the use of all available technologies to assist patients and healthcare professionals,” he added.

There has been no shortage of people praising the potentials of 3D printing technology to aid shortage brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

EURACTIV caught up with Joseph M. DeSimone, Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to hear more. DeSimone’s laboratory works in the field of 3D Printing for medical devices, and he is also known as the 2008 recipient of the Lemelson–MIT Prize and as the co-founder and Executive Chairman of Carbon, an American technology company.

“The escalating global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic exposes vulnerabilities related to supply chains and what can happen when supply chains are not adaptable,” he said.

“As the world faces increasing medical supply shortages, additive manufacturing technologies can help meet critical production needs by avoiding problems that traditional supply chains continue to experience due to regional shut-downs and global transportation disruptions.”

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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