11 June 2020

Open source vs bleach… the global hunt for a defence against COVID-19


Allegra Chan
Associate | UK

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic countries have been working tirelessly with medical professionals and researchers around the world in the fight against the virus. Countries are scrambling to find a vaccine, to pull their economies off the ground and to address the growing shortages of medical resources. The hunt for a defence has given rise to unexpected events; tech rivals collaborating to provide contact tracing apps, research centres joining forces to build cost effective ventilators and unorthodox COVID defence proposals by the US President. Whilst the latter has yet to hold merit, we have seen strength in collaborations between countries and across industries.

A united defence will be the most effective defence against the virus. Sharing of information and collaborative efforts across the globe are fundamental to accelerate technological development in response to these issues. Utilisation of open source solutions facilitates this and could be the key to overcoming the pandemic.

What is open source?

The open source movement is described as one promoting the free sharing of information and technology and giving rise to technical and economic freedom. Open source software is freely accessible software that can be used, changed and shared by anyone and distributed under an open source licence.

In recent years there has been a sharp increase in companies actively involved in open source software. The open source eco-system has a community of developers constantly improving the code they work with to produce bug fixes and add functionality. Software can be easily adapted to fit with changing requirements while using software that has been shared in the open source community can also shorten the development phase for creating a product. This makes open source solutions a time efficient and cost effective tool to fight the pandemic. These solutions have been adopted by scientists, healthcare professionals, software developers and innovators when collaborating on projects. As a result, there has been a surge in international open source software and hardware development in response to the pandemic.

How is open source being used to fight COVID?

One such open source software technology is the contact tracing app, which has been developed to facilitate the tracking of people who have had the virus. The app requires a high uptake of use in order to work effectively. Making the app open source helps to overcome privacy concerns by allowing the source code to be made available and therefore subject to public review and scrutiny. Additionally, this may assist other governments who wish to develop a variant of the app – as the software is open source there is no commercial intellectual property to be concerned with. We have already seen countries adopting this approach with their applications; Singapore released its contact tracing app, ‘TraceTogether’ in April 2020 which has been shared under the GPLv3 open source licence. NHSX, a new unit driven by the UK government to drive the digital transportation of health and social care, also announced it intends to reveal the source code behind its contact tracing app.

Many other open source software technologies have been developed in response to the pandemic. COVID-19 Hospital Impact Model for Epidemics (CHIME), for example, allows hospitals to run models to project numbers of new COVID-related admissions that can be expected each day. The online tool allows hospitals to get informed estimates of the number of patients that will need hospitalisation, ICU beds or medical ventilation over the coming days and weeks and a better understanding of the impact of the virus on hospital demands. This tool is especially useful given the growing shortages of medical equipment worldwide. In particular, we have seen that numerous countries have found themselves running short of ventilators. Open source solutions have also emerged in response here, with innovative initiatives developed in the last few months to address the gap in ventilator supply during COVID-19.

Open source ventilators

An open source ventilator is a ventilator made using a freely licensed (open source) design. These designs can be shared globally, will have lower implementation costs and can be easily adapted to meet local resources. Research teams are joining in the challenge to design an item to solve the supply deficit crisis facing the world.

Last month, NVIDIA’s chief research scientist Bill Dally released an open source design for a low cost, easy to assemble ventilator that can be used to treat patients of COVID-19. The ventilator can be built quickly from just $400 USD, compared with traditional ventilators which can cost more than $20,000 USD. The design is being licensed under Stanford University’s open source ventilator licence, which permits design materials to be used for developing a mechanical ventilator for rapid deployment.

The concept of sharing materials to promote collaboration is essential in the fight against COVID-19. Making solutions for collaboration readily available allows for rapid coordinated responses to the pandemic. This is reiterated in the Open COVID Pledge – an initiative made to encourage such collaboration, by founding pledgers such as Facebook, Amazon, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, HPE and Uber.

Open COVID Pledge

The Open COVID Pledge calls on organisations around the world to make their patents and intellectual property freely available in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The pledge was created to accelerate the development and deployment of vaccines, medical equipment and software solutions. Whilst pledgers are free to adopt their own licence agreement, the founding pledgers make available a model ‘open COVID licence’ for use. This gives users the right to exploit all patent, copyright and other intellectual property rights (other than trademarks and trade secrets) that the licensor has the right to license under the terms, provided that such exploitation must be for the sole purpose of ending the COVID-19 pandemic. The licence grant terminates one year after the World Health Organisation declares the pandemic to have ended.

Is open source the answer?

There has been a huge global response by way of collaboration between companies, industries and individuals to combat the pandemic. Open source developments have made possible mass efforts to fight COVID and facilitated international cooperation. Use of open source solutions have helped to overcome delays that would have arisen negotiating intellectual property rights, royalties, liability, choice of law and transaction costs. Only time will tell how effective open source solutions will be, however the progress is promising. At the very least, open source tech collaborations have set the blueprint for a cost effective and time efficient solution driven approach to global issues that require a coordinated global response.

Allegra Chan Associate | London

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