• Ventilators are at the top of the news agenda as the coronavirus pandemic grips the world.
  • They're machines that help patients breathe, and can aid recovery from COVID-19.
  • In New York, ventilators are being shared to combat shortages.
  • Engineers are racing to find faster and cheaper ways to produce more.

During the coronavirus pandemic, ventilators have become a topic of heated debate. There aren’t enough, they aren’t where they need to be, people are having to share, some people are trying to make their own, and the world’s best engineers are working out how to scale up production.

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.

Ventilators are machines that help patients who can’t breathe on their own. They blow air – and sometimes air with extra oxygen – down the airways and into the lungs. Some also help patients expel air.

coronavirus fears epidemic pandemic disease infection contamination sanitation spread virus health care italy quarantine home isolation social distancing
Ventilators blow oxygenated air into the lungs.
Image: British Lung Foundation

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough. While around 80% of people who get it recover without special treatment, around 1 in 6 become seriously ill, developing breathing difficulties, according to the World Health Organization.

That’s where ventilators come in, assisting the lungs while the body fights off the infection and – hopefully – recovers. About 30% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are likely to require mechanical ventilation, according to a study by Imperial College London.

Not enough to go round

With the COVID-19 pandemic advancing so fast, many countries are facing shortages of ventilators, forcing doctors on the frontline to make difficult choices about who gets them and who doesn’t.

Patients are sharing ventilators in one New York hospital, according to the New York Times, a tactic that’s been used before in crisis situations, including during Italy’s coronavirus outbreak and in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.

In many countries, companies and governments are working together to make more ventilators, and fast. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked more than 60 manufacturing businesses to help step up production of medical equipment, including ventilators.

But ventilators aren't a panacea. Inserting a breathing tube into airways can raise the risk of lung infection. Breathing tubes can also make it hard to cough, which is one way the body clears out irritants.

The message from the World Health Organization remains the same: maintain social distancing, stay at least one metre away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing, and wash your hands frequently.