DIY ventilators might ease supply shortage amid coronavirus pandemic

A shortage of medical equipment amid the CoViD-19 pandemic has driven 'makers' to try DIY designs in an attempt to fill the supply gap.
Brad Bergan
Image formatted to fit. Source: jcl5m1 / GitHub

Countries suffering drastically from the coronavirus pandemic are running out of ventilators and other medical equipment, causing "makers" to try to fill the supply gap by proposing open-source, do-it-yourself alternative devices, reports VICE.

'Makers' work to create ventilators for the coronavirus pandemic

Most CoViD-19 cases — the disease that comes from contracting the coronavirus infection — don't require hospitalization. But those who are hospitalized with severe cases of coronavirus infection suffer damaged lungs that make it hard to breathe in and circulate oxygen within the body.

Machines that provide human lungs with oxygen called ventilators have proven to be crucial in treating people suffering from severe cases of CoViD-19, who represent 10 percent of all cases, according to VICE.

Governments around the world are already readying themselves for a shortage of ventilators, and the effects this will have on their healthcare systems.

U.S. President Donald Trump called U.S. governors on Monday to tell states not to completely rely on the federal government for equipment. "Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves," said the president, according to the New York Times. "We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it for yourself."

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci said on CNN that the U.S. has so far stockpiled 12,700 ventilators, but added that in a worst-case scenario, this amount could be insufficient. He added that in Italy physicians are making "very tough decisions" about which patients they should treat.

Across the English Channel, Boris Johnson — Prime Minister of the UK — stressed the need for engineering firms to switch production to manufacturing ventilators, according to the BBC. This echoed a similar call by Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. "If you produce a ventilator, then we buy it. No number is too high," said Hancock on Sky News.

Makers trying to make up for the medical supply shortage

Some officials think makers could help to make up the gap in the supply and demand of medical supplies. Third-year medicine resident Julian Botta of Jons Hopkins University who claimed his views are unrelated to those of the university assembled a Googe Doc titled "Specifications for simple open source mechanical ventilator." In the doc, he illustrates key specs of the types of ventilators used for patients who have contracted the coronavirus infection.

Botta also suggests a design for open-source ventilators after seeing that engineers with an interest in creating ventilators also lacked a thorough understanding of how they work.

Numerous other groups have appeared across the design spectrum, from sharing information to how to draft and 3D-print ventilator parts. A "hackspace for politics" in the UK called Newspeak House jump-started a crowdsourced document called the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, which details general virus-related information, but also includes links to open-source equipment designs and additional resources, reports VICE.

A resident fellow at Newspeak House who helped create the handbook wrote a Medium post, in which he argued that if the hub "causes two people to meet and develop a tool that saves a lot of lives, it just might be the most impactful thing I ever do."

Open-share ventilators for coronavirus patients

Despite this, Botta said that the unique features of ventilators make them difficult to simplify for DIY replication, according to VICE.

Before Botta wrote his proposal for a ventilator, he noticed designs posted in Facebook groups (not unlike others showing up on GitHub) that looked like custom-built continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines — these kinds of devices aren't able to sense how much oxygen is reaching a patient's lungs, nor are they dynamic enough to provide adequate functionality to coronavirus patients with respiratory distress, said Botta to VICE.

Instead, Botta's idea for a DIY ventilator includes feedback features, with sensors that trigger alarms in case of low oxygen flow or malfunctions in the device.

As the world economy stretches to meet the unprecedented demands of the coronavirus pandemic, the ingenuity of people in every sector of tech, design, and university departments is slowly coming together to close the precarious gap in medical supplies.

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