The United States has been facing a shortage of ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ventilators are machines that “breathe” for the patient by pushing air through tubes that are connected to a mask fitted directly over the patient’s nose and mouth, allowing for a rhythmic flow of air in and out of the body. More serious coronavirus cases have caused damage to the lungs, impairing a person’s ability to breathe and thus requiring ventilatory support.
Beginning in March 2020, ventilatory support needed to treat COVID-19 patients, coupled with the usual number of patients that already require ventilators, caused the demand for ventilators to far surpass the supply available.
High-end ventilators that are normally used in hospitals are complex and cost between $25,000 to $50,000 each, prompting the need for affordable ventilators that are simpler to mass-produce.
To mitigate this problem, two physicians from University of California, Irvine Medical Center, Dr. Brian Wong and Dr. Govind Rajan, designed and presented an idea for a proposed “bridge” ventilator. This simplified ventilator with basic settings aims to alleviate the supply shortage by providing COVID-19 patients with the support they need while freeing high-end ventilators for patients with more complex, dire cases.
Dr. Rajan published this idea on various social media sites in addition to a crowdsourcing forum of engineers.
“We got a number of responses from all over the world in just a few days — we got in touch with Incubator Group [at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur], Getenergy Field Ready Ltd, from Ghana, Beckman Laser Institute and Dan Hart from Virgin Orbit, all wanting to help in the development of these ventilators during this crisis,” Dr. Rajan said.
To foster global collaboration on the creation and utilization of the ventilator, the two physicians and Tom Milner, a biomedical engineering professor at UCI and a director at the Beckman Laser Institute, established the Bridge Ventilator Consortium.
“Besides just creating new ventilators, we wanted to create a think-tank where people could pitch problems in a large forum,” Dr. Rajan said.
Virgin Orbit, a United States-based rocket-making company, worked with the Bridge Ventilator Consortium to generate low-cost, efficient and mass-producible ventilators. Over the course of a few weeks, the bridge ventilator was prototyped, and FDA approved April 22.
Since its approval, Virgin Orbit has been granted permission, through an Emergency Use Authorization from Governor Gavin Newsom, to begin distribution of the bridge ventilators in California. Through California’s Emergency Medical Services Authority, the ventilators, costing about $200 and $500 each, are being delivered to various hospitals and healthcare workers.
With the growth of this invention gaining international attention, the bridge ventilator is formulating a global health impact that goes well beyond the pandemic: aiding developing countries in strengthening their quality of care by mitigating a shortage that was present well before COVID-19.
For instance, many African nations have no ventilators on-hand. Libera has three ventilators for the whole country, and South Sudan as four. 10 African countries have no ventilators at all. In contrast, in the U.S. acute care hospitals had approximately 62,000 high-end ventilators prior to the pandemic.
With many countries lacking basic respiratory equipment, the pandemic could have devastating consequences for countries in Africa that are battling COVID-19 with minimal resources.Virgin Orbit has been working to target the ventilator shortage in these countries.
In June, the President of South Africa announced their plan to begin mass-producing the bridge ventilators using Virgin Orbit’s design, and making these ventilators available on Africa Medical Supplies Forum. This online marketplace provides necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment to African governments and NGOs.
Virgin Orbit is providing the design and manufacturing expertise to Invicta Holdings, which will be producing and distributing these ventilators to hospitals throughout Africa. 1,000 of these ventilators will be given to hospitals completely free, and Invicta Holdings stated that they would also manufacture 10,000 additional ventilators.
Although the bridge ventilator was designed recently, Virgin Orbit is not the only company producing these ventilators. Milner and his team at the Beckman Laser Institute created their own bridge ventilator and are awaiting FDA approval of the Emergency Use Authorization.
“One of the biggest takeaways from the whole project is that our ventilator is very low cost, Milner said. “From all those that we know on the market, it would be one of the least expensive but certainly one of the more functioning ones.”