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Engineers 3D-print patented valves for free to save coronavirus patients in Italy

Coronavirus: Company in Italy printed respirator valves to deal with shortage of parts
WATCH: A 3D-printer company in Italy has designed and printed 100 life-saving respirator valves in 24 hours for a hospital that had run out of them.

An engineering company in Italy is saving lives and risking a future lawsuit by 3D-printing an expensive — and patented — medical valve needed to treat victims of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The valves are used to connect COVID-19 patients to breathing machines at a hospital in Brescia, a city in northern Italy where the coronavirus outbreak has been most severe. However, the patented valves cost thousands of dollars and they must be changed out and discarded every eight hours to keep patients alive, according to Business Insider.

READ MORE: ‘Truly heroes’: Tributes pour in for doctors, nurses fighting coronavirus pandemic

The hospital simply couldn’t keep up with the demand, so a local reporter and a physicist put the hospital in touch with Isinnova, a tech start-up that specializes in 3D-printing.

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Isinnova chief executive Cristian Fracassi says he reverse-engineered and 3D-printed the part because the “ordinary” supply chain couldn’t keep up with the hospital’s extraordinary demand. Each part cost about 1 euro (about CAD$1.60) worth of materials to print, but Fracassi says his firm cranked out about 100 valves for free.

“There were people in danger of life and we acted,” Fracassi wrote on Facebook. “Period.”

The patent-holders refused to give Fracassi the 3D model and threatened to sue him for copyright infringement, Business Insider reports.

Fracassi and Michele Faini, another Brescia-based designer, figured out the valve’s design by analyzing an example.

“We were ready to print the valves in a couple of hours, and the day after we had 100 valves printed,” Faini, who works for a firm called FabLab, told Fast Company.

Several 3D-printed valves are shown at Chiari Hospital in Italy.
Several 3D-printed valves are shown at Chiari Hospital in Italy. Via Paola Pisano/Twitter

Fracassi says his company has no intention of stealing the patented design, sharing it or profiting off of it. He and his staff simply acted to save lives in the moment, even if it would cost them in the future.

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In other words, they chose patients over patents.

READ MORE: Couple leaves $9,400 tip to help restaurant staff through coronavirus shutdown

“We are not going to use the designs or the product beyond the strict need that forced us to act,” Fracassi wrote. “We only did our duty.”

Cristian Fracassi, left, and his Isinnova colleague Alessandro Ramaioli show off their 3D-printed valves in Italy.
Cristian Fracassi, left, and his Isinnova colleague Alessandro Ramaioli show off their 3D-printed valves in Italy. Massimo Temporelli/Facebook

The 3D-printed valves have already been used to help at least 10 patients, according to Massimo Temporelli, a physicist who helped the hospital get in touch with Fracassi. Temporelli called the story a “win” for everybody.

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Fracassi and Temporelli have been widely celebrated in Italy for their efforts, including by Paola Pisano, the country’s minister for technological innovation.

“Congratulations!” she tweeted.

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Business Insider reports that the valves are worth about 10,000 euros (nearly $16,000 Canadian). However, Fracassi disputed that amount in a statement to Fast Company.

READ MORE: Flatten the curve: How one chart became a rallying cry against coronavirus

Fracassi has downplayed suggestions that he and his team are “heroes” or “geniuses.” He also urged people not to paint the valve patent-holders as villains, since there are many “complex” costs that come with developing specialized equipment such as a breathing valve. The materials might be cheap, but it’s expensive to research and design such a part, he said.

“The community, made up of a hospital, a newspaper and a team of professionals, raced against time and saved lives,” Fracassi wrote. “That is all.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the avirus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.