• Ventilators for patients with severe cases of COVID-19 are in short supply globally.
  • The new coronavirus has infected more than half a million people worldwide.
  • Companies including Dyson and Ford Motor Company are stepping up to meet the demand for ventilators, alongside other innovations.

A revolutionary snorkelling mask designed for a fun day at the beach is being used by Italian doctors treating coronavirus patients. And a vacuum cleaner company has designed a new ventilator in just 10 days.

They’re just two examples of innovation happening at breakneck speed - to save lives.

COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, has already affected more than half a million people worldwide. In severe cases, the lungs can fill up with fluid, meaning patients need the mechanical breathing assistance of a ventilator.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Governments and health authorities around the world are asking businesses to repurpose their production lines and supply chains as they try to close the huge gap between the number of ventilators that will be required, and the number currently available.

The EU has said the first priority for this should be to help current manufacturers scale up, as other solutions will need to overcome hurdles to be consider clinical grade.

Stepping up

James Dyson, whose company is best-known for its vacuum cleaners and hand-driers, was called by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson - and 10 days later, his company had designed and built the ‘CoVent’, which will be ready by April.

Billionaire Dyson will also donate 5,000 units to international efforts to tackle the virus.

GE Healthcare has teamed up with the Ford Motor Company to scale up its production of ventilators.

“We are encouraged by how quickly companies from across industries have mobilized to address the growing challenge we collectively face from COVID-19,” said Kieran Murphy, president and CEO of GE Healthcare.

Meanwhile, in Wales, a ventilator designed by a senior consultant using his military experience is being manufactured by an engineering company in Ammanford.

Called a Covid Emergency Ventilator, the device has had the go-ahead from the Welsh Government and it’s hoped that a hundred could be manufactured each day.

A breathing aid that could keep patients out of intensive care has also been developed in the UK. University College London engineers worked together with Mercedes Formula One and medical staff at UCLH to build the tech - which delivers oxygen to the lungs without needing a ventilator.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) devices are already being used in hospitals - but they're in short supply. If testing is successful in four London hospitals, up to 1,000 of the machines could be made a day from next week.

A consortium is also working in the UK to produce medical ventilators for the NHS. The 'VentilatorChallengeUK' includes Airbus, BAE Systems, Ford and Siemens.

Other companies also ramping up production include Philips and Medtronic.

Agile innovation

French sports retailer Decathlon developed the Easybreath mask for snorkelling. But as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, an Italian doctor saw the potential to adapt it for use on critical care wards struggling to cope with an overwhelming number of patients.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Decathlon’s Easybreath Snorkelling mask is proving to be a lifesaver.
Image: Decathlon

Dr Renato Favero contacted Italian 3D printing company Isinnova. Armed with the digital design files supplied by Decathlon, they were able to fast-track a 3D printed valve that allowed the mask to be connected to a traditional hospital respirator.

A patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) wears a full-face Easybreath snorkelling mask given by sport chain Decathlon and turned into a ventilator for coronavirus treatment at the intensive care unit at Ambroise Pare clinic in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris, as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues in France, April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2PVF9G7LP2
The modified Decathlon Easybreath snorkelling mask is being used to treat hundreds of coronavirus patients.
Image: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

It’s reported that 500 patients are now being treated using the modified mask. This video shows how the mask was repurposed from a piece of leisure equipment into a lifesaving medical device.

Frontline protection for healthcare workers

Personal protective equipment for frontline health workers is also in critically short supply. Stocks of N95 type masks with antimicrobial filters are a particular problem.

The President of the Massachusetts General Hospital told NBC News that sending medics into hospitals without these masks would be like sending soldiers into war zones without helmets and body armour.

Step in Copper 3D, a tech company specializing in antimicrobial equipment based in the U.S. and Santiago, Chile. It has released 3D printing files to allow anyone with a printer to make its NanoHack mask, designed to filter out particles that could carry the virus.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Copper 3D’s NanoHack printable mask.
Image: 3dprintingmedia

The company is keen to stress that this is very much a last-resort piece of kit. It hasn’t been subjected to the detailed testing procedures normally required for new medical equipment and is unproven against the novel coronavirus. But, if and when supplies of regular masks are exhausted, it will be better than nothing.

The bigger challenge

While small innovators rush to provide quick solutions, they can never hope to meet the enormous needs of global health systems. The scale of the challenge is truly daunting.

In the U.S. alone, the Society of Critical Care Medicine has projected as many as 960,000 people infected with coronavirus may need to be put on ventilators during their treatment. The number of ventilators currently available is estimated at around 200,000.

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps around the globe, the critical shortage of vital equipment will make the task of saving lives much harder for frontline staff. The workarounds achieved by innovators could mean some patients who would have died will survive.