UK Hospitals Trial Modern-day ‘Iron Lung’ to Beat Ventilator Shortage

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British hospitals will trial a low-cost modern-day “iron lung” dubbed the Exovent, which may help beat the enormous ventilator shortage the country faces.

Developed by the Marshall Aerospace & Defence Group with the support of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick and representatives from the Imperial NHS Trust and The Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, the so-called Negative Pressure Ventilator (NPV) would fit over the torso of the patient and support their breathing without requiring them to undergo an induced coma or intubation, as with a standard Intermittent Positive Pressure Ventilators (IPPV).

The Exovent does not require the same sort of components as an IPPV ventilator, either, meaning they could be manufactured — at a rate of 5,000 a week, its designers believe — without putting any strain on the supply chain being used to produce more IPPVs.

Six of the machines are set to be trialled at a number of NHS hospitals, including the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge — described as the country’s “leading heart and lung hospital” by the Independent.

“This is one of a number of projects we are involved in following the government’s call to industry for support in the battle against Covid-19 and we are incredibly proud that our engineering talent is being put to such important use,” commented Patrick Wood, Marshall ADG’s chief technical officer.

“Clearly there is still long way to go but I am very excited about the potential of the Exovent product. It has so many positive attributes in terms of cost, ease of production and application, and at the same time doesn’t use any of the same parts that are being used in the production of the much needed positive pressure ventilators,” he added.

Dr Malcolm Coulthard, the design team’s lead clinician, said they had worked “flat out” to flesh out the concept in just ten days, on the assumption that a new negative pressure-based device could “allow us to produce literally thousands of ventilators very quickly and cheaply to cope with the tsunami of people with pneumonia that may be upon us because of the Covid-19 virus.”

“[I]t immediately became apparent that this will allow us to produce less-invasive devices than the conventional units in current use, possibly better for patients’ hearts, at a fraction of the price, using off-the-shelf parts,” he added.

Other promising-sounding developments after the British government’s call for industry to join a National Effort for ventilator have proved underwhelming, however, at least up to now.

15,000 conventional ventilators ordered from a consortium including Dyson and JCB are still being developed, while an emergency ventilator designed by vacuum-maker Gtech — fashioned out of off-the-shelf components, able to run on hospital air supplies, and suitable for mass production — has been turned down by the Department of Health and Social Care.

A similarly rudimentary “flat-pack” ventilator dubbed the OxVent by designers at the University of Oxford and King’s College London is still undergoing safety testing.

All told, Britain’s arsenal of 8,000 ventilators — fewer per capita than its Western European contemporaries — has been increased by a mere 30 as of this weekend.

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