Race car mechanics, academics reverse engineer breathing device for corona victims

The British team reverse-engineered CPAP machines to help patients breathe so as to save ventilators for the most critically ill.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

A group of British engineers from the academic and car-racing worlds teamed up with doctors to create a medical device for seriously ill coronavirus victims in less than a week, the Guardian reported Monday.

After consulting with clinicians in University College London Hospital (UCLH), engineers in the College’s Institute of Healthcare Engineering took apart a standard Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine used to help people with breathing problems and redesigned it within days.

They created the new device together with colleagues who usually work on improving race cars at Mercedes Formula One.

“From being given the brief, we worked all hours of the day, disassembling and analyzing an off-patent device,” said UCL engineer Tim Baker. “Using computer simulations, we improved the device further to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production.”

It took only a few days more for the UK regulatory authorities to approve its use.

The redesigned device’s importance lies in the fact that it could help save coronavirus patients from being put on ventilators, which are increasingly in short supply around the world.

“These devices are a halfway house between a simple oxygen mask and invasive mechanical ventilation which requires patients to be sedated,” explained UCLH critical care consultant Prof. Mervyn Singer. “They will help to save lives by ensuring that ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill.”

This is because as long as patients can breathe on their own, the CPAP is a completely non-invasive way of helping them inhale when their lungs are seriously congested by the disease. It works by delivering a constant flow of air and oxygen to the body’s airtubes via a mask that covers the mouth and nose.

Ventilators, which mechanically pump oxygen directly into the lungs and draw out the carbon dioxide, can then be saved for people who cannot breathe on their own.

Patients on ventilators must also be kept in an intensive care unit, which has a high ratio of medical staff to patient. Those who can use the new CPAP instead will save precious space and hospital manpower, as they can be kept in an ordinary isolation ward.

Israel currently has some 2,900 ventilators throughout the country. As of Monday morning, only 59 people were on the machines, but the number of critically ill patients has more than doubled in the last week.

Health authorities fear a situation where the number of those needing artificial respiration will overtake the number of ventilators and force doctors to decide who should get the life-saving equipment and who not.

Dr. Orly Weinstein, the Health Ministry official in charge of purchasing medical equipment, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday that 11,000 ventilators are on order, with 2,000 to 3,000 expected to be manufactured in Israel in the next two months.