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For years, the world’s two largest producers of medical testing swabs — one based in rural Maine, the other in the foothills of the Italian Alps — have waged a series of transatlantic legal battles.
But for now, both companies seem to be temporarily laying down their arms so they can focus on a much greater challenge: scaling up their production to meet the new demands of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since at least 2012, Puritan Medical Products, a company based in Piscataquis County, has been defending itself from claims that it has violated the patents of its Italian competitor, Copan Diagnostics, by producing and selling a certain type of specialized medical swab. They have been litigating the matter in European and U.S. courts, with Puritan arguing in at least one case that Copan has only patented a method for testing, not the swab itself.
While the term “swab” may bring to mind a Q-tip, the specialized swabs used to test for the coronavirus are a good deal more sophisticated than the cotton ones used to clean out ears. They are long and thin, with plastic rods and small synthetic fibers arranged at the tip in a flocked pattern that’s optimal for collecting viral samples. Once a sample is on those fibers, the swab is stuck into a vial filled with protective chemicals so that it can be transported to a lab.
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The years-long fight between the two competitors might be of little note to the general public, except for the fact that the very product over which they disagree — a small device that collects biological samples from the back of the throat — now has a crucial role to play.
As the coronavirus has swept across the world, both companies have been working overtime to meet the new demand for testing swabs. Puritan is expanding into a new Pittsfield factory with a $75.5 million contract from the federal government. Copan’s U.S. subsidiary has received $10 million from the technology giant Apple to accelerate its production by moving to a larger facility in southern California.
Now, the challenge of keeping up with a surging swab demand seems to have yielded a temporary truce between the two family-owned operations.
Last Friday, their attorneys filed a joint motion to stay an ongoing federal lawsuit that Copan filed two years ago in U.S. District Court in Maine alleging patent infringement and unfair competition by Puritan.
In doing so, they cited the “extraordinary times” and the fact that both companies “are working around the clock to maximize product output due to the ongoing surge in demand during the COVID-19 outbreak.” They requested that all pending deadlines in the case be lifted until “the crisis passes” and said they would “engage in good-faith efforts to narrow, or resolve, the issues between them.”
“Puritan and Copan may disagree as to the merits of the pending lawsuit, but they are united in their view that all of their resources at this time are best devoted to producing viral testing materials,” the attorneys said. “Moreover, the current pandemic could fundamentally change the contours of this case.”
On Monday, Judge Jon. D. Levy granted the motion.
Timothy Templet, Puritan’s co-owner and executive vice president of global sales, declined to comment on the federal lawsuit during an interview this week.
An attorney for Copan, Rebecca Gray Klotzle of Portland, said the company generally does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Watch: Why Maine is tracking number of tests instead of people tested