Local Production of Helmet-Based Technology can Increase Self-Sufficiency amid COVID-19 Triggered Ventilator Shortage

Acute ventilator shortage is one of the major problems crippling healthcare systems around the world, as they are essential for treating the critically ill patients with respiratory distress caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Limited production capacity and disturbed global supply chains cannot keep up with the constantly increasing demand. Helmet-based ventilators  (HBV) can alleviate the problem, as every country has the capability to manufacture them locally: this would enable the countries to re-supply the in-country hospitals and other treatment centers with the necessary equipment.

The world is racing to build more ventilators, however, scaling production and distribution has become difficult. Around 75 % of companies have reported supply chain disruptions related to transportation and other restrictions enforced due to the pandemic, and the number of affected businesses is predicted to grow even more over the next few weeks. With the global logistics upended, relying only on outside support can place a country at high-risk, compromising the effectiveness of its COVID-19 response effort.

Due to the severity of the situation, some countries have already taken the initiative to better prepare to withstand the ventilator shortage. In an attempt to mitigate the problem, researchers in Australia have developed a way to split a single ventilator for two patients. Although scientists have successfully tested the idea in a simulated setting, experts warn that this method should be used only as a last-resort for a number of reasons: difference in air supply needed for each patient, irregular flow of pressurized air and cross-patient contamination.

Helmet-based ventilator, a non-invasive technology, used for patients who have respiratory distress as a complication of the COVID-19 virus, could mitigate the severity of the problem without exposing patients to additional threats.  Due to its ingenious design, helmets can be manufactured locally with relatively low costs, bypassing the complex production processes. This, in turn, would enable countries to become more self-sufficient in terms of equipping their local hospitals with a credible solution for treating patients and alleviate the scarcity of ventilators.

People are known to make the “bubble helmet” even at home, documenting the process and sharing their insights in the “NIV Helmet Manufacturing Project to Combat COVID-19” group. According to Aurika Savickaite, the team leader of the HBV initiative, to most countries it should not present a challenge, as their production does not require to be highly tech-savvy and uses easily obtainable parts.

“The simplistic design enables to make the helmet with limited resources and at-home conditions – it all comes down to creativity,” said Aurika Savickaitė, RN, MSN, who was involved in the successful testing of the helmet ventilation in the ICU at the University of Chicago. “Although most of the parts needed can be commonly found in the pulmonology ward, people have been improvising by using Ziploc bags, various 3D printed parts, plastic buckets and other non-typical parts. Plus, around 20 to 30 percent of patients using HBV avoid intubation, thus helping to save up other currently scarce medical supplies, such as sedatives. Overall, local production of helmet-based ventilators can reinforce each country’s pandemic relief effort – the better medical professionals are equipped, the higher chance to reduce the fatality rate.”

Emerging economies have not escaped the devastating effects of the outbreak, however, they are far more ill-equipped to deal with the spread of the virus than its counterparts in the Western world. In India, experts predict that as nearly as 3 % (or around 40 million) of patients will require ventilators. Indonesia’s healthcare system is under a massive strain and the extreme shortage of ventilators will probably result in many avoidable deaths.

Central African Republic, a country of five million people, is reported to have just three ventilators in total, thus posing “an existential threat” to the continent. Helmet-based ventilator could alleviate the crisis in such countries, as their production does not require complex equipment, yet they can save thousands with their efficient design and low manufacturing costs.

The initiative is led by a group of expert volunteers, who launched a website helmetbasedventilation.com as a way to connect healthcare professionals, potential manufacturers and investors with the know-how on the HBV technology. The team hopes to introduce this solution to as many medical professionals as possible, thus relieving some of the strain caused by the ventilator shortage and strengthening the overall COVID-19 response effort.

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