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Infectious Diseases

Updated 30 April 2020

Amid SA’s looming shortage, UJ creates open-source, cheap ventilators

Peak Covid-19 infections in South Africa are expected to occur in September, and a team from the University of Johannesburg have come up with an approach to tackle the shortage of critical life-saving machines.

As the world continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic, with over 2.3 million reported cases at the time of publishing this article, many countries are seeing a rise in cases – South Africa included.

As of 28 April, the country has a total number of 4 793 confirmed cases, and 87 confirmed deaths. And, according to News24, Africa, and by extension South Africa, is not currently on the top of supply lists for life-saving ventilators.

However, a multidisciplinary team of engineers and healthcare practitioners at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), led by UJ’s Dr Deon Sabatta and Dr Samson Masebinu, aim to create open-source, cheap ventilators, a media release explained.

Three-pronged strategy

Government projections indicate that the virus could peak in South Africa in September 2020. If the lockdown hadn't happened, the peak rate would have been expected in July. Currently, 27 Covid-19 patients are on ventilator support in hospitals, which is seemingly in line with government's projections, reports News24.

However, earlier projections by the Department of Health suggested the country would need 7 000 ventilators by the time we hit peak infection, and at present, the country’s public healthcare system only has 1 111 operational ventilators, and its private healthcare system 2 105, according to News24.

Responding to these reports, the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (FEBE) is coordinating efforts in a three-pronged strategy:

  • Further develop open-source ventilators
  • Support repair and maintenance efforts to bring out-of-warranty equipment into service
  • Make rapid prototyping facilities available to enable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) manufacturing

The team identified several simple and open-source designs that met the strict specifications for use with patients if further developed and tested. The viable products can be produced through three-dimensional (3D) printing and laser cutting techniques, and their designs will support the development of the critical control systems that protect a patient supported by a ventilator.

“Ventilators are complex medical devices, and it is more intricate than simply squeezing a bag. Our product includes devices such as, pressure sensors, flow sensors, and a number of control algorithms,” Sabatta explained, adding that it can be set up to perform more advanced ventilation tasks such as Pressure Support Ventilation (PSV) or Synchronous Intermittent Mandatory Ventilation (SIMV).

“This is a step up in ventilation support, by being able to assist patients further when they are tiring from being on Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) systems for extended periods of time,” he said. 

Upskilling SMEs

The UJ Process Energy and Environmental Technology Station (UJ-PEETS) is also seeking out decommissioned ventilators at public and private hospitals in the hope to bring out-of-service equipment back online, and are focusing their efforts on e-waste reduction in a circular economy (an economic system aimed at eliminating waste) to support the medical engineering maintenance programmes at hospitals.

“Through our repair and maintenance undertaking, this assignment will build on the principles of circularity and create employment opportunities since there are large amounts of equipment that can be repaired and calibrated for reuse, especially beyond our borders in South Africa,” explained Masebinu.

“There is no sector more critical at this moment than healthcare, which is why we are proud to play a role in helping to produce and revamp these critical life-saving devices.”

Many countries, including South Africa, face a skills shortage in facility and technical equipment maintenance at health care facilities. As a result, the UJ-PEETS team is preparing to support and upskill small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the clinical technical services sector.

The aim is to deliver on the globally-required 500% to 1 000% growth in ventilator production, in order to prevent unnecessary deaths due to ventilator-shortage.

The UJ team is requesting support in their efforts: “[We invite] industry partners, researchers and practitioners in the clinical technical services sector to join forces to fast-track research and prototype development, and support critical maintenance activities to ensure that the project can be scaled and replicated on the continent,” the release reads.

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Image: Getty Images