Free online access to standards responding to COVID-19

Justification of standards fees

From time to time, we hear complaints from SMEs, especially in developing and emerging countries, about the costs of acquiring technical standards. This is especially true for the international standards of ISO and IEC or their national adaptations.

The standard bodies justify the charging for standards, on the one hand, with the considerable costs involved for the creation of standards. Hence, the fees for standards are an essential income source to maintain the national and international standard system.[1] The standard bodies coordinate the committees that develop and update standards. On the other hand, the standard bodies are part of the quality infrastructure, which needs financing.

The funding of standards follows the principle that those who benefit most should pay for the production of standards. After all, companies using the standards can access “distilled knowledge of experienced experts through standards”.[2] Standards make it easier for companies to access the market, increase their efficiency and support innovation processes. 

Ultimately, the costs of acquiring a standard are marginal within the overall process of preparing and implementing a company’s certification. A nominal fee also underlines the value of the standards and can thus be well justified.

Freeing COVID-19 related standards

Last year, ISO and many National Standard Bodies responded to COVID-19 by making freely available standards related to pandemic response.[3] This decision was motivated by the understanding that standards could significantly contribute to addressing the shortage of protective masks and respirators. Especially for companies that wanted to change their production or entrepreneurs who wished to realise new business ideas, the standards offered a quick and efficient transfer of know-how. Products produced based on standards also have the advantage that product quality checks can be more efficient and directly contribute to the population’s health protection.

As part of the global effort to deal with the COVID 19 crisis, ISO itself released twenty-nine standards. However, this release was limited to the online read-only format. If a company wanted to purchase a copy of the standard, it still had to pay for it. Other national standard bodies followed this practice, see However, there are also standard bodies, such as SABS in South Africa, which exempt the complete download of standards related to COVID from any payment This decision shows the leeway for decision-making of the National Standards Bodies.

What has been the impact of the cost waiver?

From April to July 2020, ISO recorded on its website an unusually high number of views of freely available standards for COVID-19. Demand was exceptionally high for standards for security, resilience and risk, medical devices, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and the evaluation of medical equipment, see figure:

Source: ISO, Published on LinkedIn on January, 4th, 2020

At the National Standards Bodies level, we can report on the experiences of Costa Rica and South Africa.

Costa Rica

Felipe Calvo, the standardisation coordinator of INTECO, told us that the high number surprised him and his team. The following table shows the figures for sales and downloads of standards relevant to COVID-19.

MonthSalesDownloads*Sales/ Downloads*
Source: Data provided by INTECO; * free downloads of the read only version

The numbers for downloads were exceptionally high in the first months of the pandemic, with 24,550 in April and 21,985 in May, but then decrease continuously over the months. In contrast, the trend shows an increasing tendency with a peak of 928 standards sold in November. Overall, INTECO reached its sales target for standards in 2020.

INTECO sees its experience with the release of COVID-19 standards in the context of the digital transformation. The release of the standards in read-only mode proved to be an efficient tool for disseminating the standards, taking into account copyright.[4] The distribution of the standards via a user-friendly digital platform at a reasonable price is a successful model.

South Africa

Sadhvir Bissoon, SABS Executive for Standards, reported a similar experience. As mentioned, SABS had released various standards relevant to the pandemic response for free download. For example, open access applies to the standards related to PPE, which are directly referenced in the technical regulations and thus become a mandatory requirement for manufacturers, public procurement, and retailers.

In the SABS webstore, access to and download of these standards has increased considerably. This observation underlines the importance of standards for purchasing products and services that meet national standards’ requirements. Free access to the standards has led to increased visits to the SABS website and related pages on SABS services, including certification, testing and inspection services.

Dr Bissoon sees a need for SABS to improve the promotion and marketing of standards and related services. An improved understanding by government, industry, and regulators of standardisation’s strategic value in providing solutions to socio-economic, health and safety matters. In this respect, there is a need for closer collaboration between government agencies, public procurement, regulators and SABS services to respond effectively to disaster and crises.


By providing free access to COVID 19 standards, ISO and National Standard Bodies make a valuable contribution to mitigating the COVID 19 pandemic’s impacts. The global population benefits from using standards in the production and distribution of protective clothing and respiratory devices.

The cost exemption of standards is first and foremost an act of solidarity by the standards community for general health protection. Simultaneously, free access to standards helps raise awareness among potential users about the purpose and value of standards and conformity assessment services. To this end, it is also a successful marketing campaign.

Finally, the experience with free access to COVID standards shows possibilities for innovation in the distribution of standards. When introducing new standards, free read-only access can help standard bodies to sell more standards eventually. Digital stores also offer the possibility to analyse customer behaviour better, underpinning differentiated marketing strategies for standards. The experience gained when dealing with the COVID-19 standards shows additional design and marketing potential for National Standard Bodies.


[1] ISO (2010). Building trust – The Conformity Assessment Toolbox. Geneva, International Organization of Standards,

[2] ISO and UNIDO (2008). Fast forward – National Standards Bodies in Developing Countries. Geneva,

[3] ISO (2020). COVID-19 Response: Freely available ISO standards, New, April 16,

[4] ISO/ IEC, Copyright, standards and the internet,

This entry was posted in Conformity assessment, SME, Standards and tagged , , , , , , , , by Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke

Dr Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke is a global expert in the field of international economic development cooperation. With more than 25 years of consulting experience, he is active in all phases of a project and program development (preparation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation) and collaborates with various implementing organizations and development banks (German Development Cooperation - GIZ and PTB -, Inter-American Development Bank, European Union and United Nations). He has consulting experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Dr.Harmes-Liedtke is an experienced trainer and process consultant. He works with groups and teams to reflect on their situation and to then formulate change projects to improve their reality. He enables dialogue, facilitates and designs workshops, processes, and sense-making processes. He is certified in facilitation, mediation, and communication techniques which allow him to deal with sensitive, diverse, and even conflict situations. He supports systemic economic development in various roles: • As an expert and trainer in international trade, national quality policies, industrial policy, clusters, and global value chains • As a process consultant in designing and leading diagnostic processes that result in change, adaptation, and improvement • As a facilitator of dialogue, workshops, training, and sense-making processes • As a transdisciplinary researcher in the field of systemic economic development Born 1965, Ph.D. in political science and economics (Bremen 1999), MA in economics (Diplom-Volkswirt) (Hamburg 1991). German nationality.

3 thoughts on “Free online access to standards responding to COVID-19

  1. Thanks for the article, Ulrich. Wouldn’t it also be interesting to see a simple graphic that could show where costs lie across implementing QI? This could be helpful for policy makers and industry, including in developing countries, in where to invest for effective QI. Regards, Pam


    • Thank you for your feedback, Pam.
      Similar to the way quality management is seen as an investment at the company level, it would be conceivable to compare the costs and benefits of quality infrastructure for a country as well. I don’t know of any studies or data on this so far.
      Perhaps another reader of this blog can contribute some ideas.


  2. It is hoped that the increased use and importance of standards can be transferred into other areas where potential risks can be averted. In addition it is hoped that the marketing can also promote system standards to increase efficiency in the production of Covid related products thereby reducing manufacturing costs in the long term.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s