Considering there are only about 160,000 ventilators in U.S. hospitals, and there are already over 144,000 cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) as of press time, the country will soon feel the shortage of these life-saving devices as doctors make decisions about who gets a breathing machine and who doesn’t. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects the U.S. to have a ventilator shortage on the order of 300,000 to 700,000 units.
Now, volunteer engineers, physicians, and computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have a potential solution that should only cost about $400 to $500 in parts to produce. MIT plans to make these designs available online for free to help companies around the world shift to ventilator production.
These researchers formed MIT E-Vent, as the team is known, less than three weeks ago in response to doctors’ urgings to revive a decade-old MIT project in medical device design. In 2010, students and faculty working with physicians local to the Cambridge, Massachusetts area came up with designs for a simple ventilator machine.
The design makes use of an unlikely hero: the Ambu resuscitation bags commonly found in hospitals. Emergency technicians or medical professionals hand-operate these bags to create airflow to the lungs until a ventilator becomes available. A tube is inserted into the person’s throat, while the trained professional squeezes and releases the flexible pouch.
MIT is adapting the Ambu bags by creating a mechanism that can automate the squeezing and releasing motions, since it isn’t practical to expect someone to sit around and pump these bags for days on end. In case of any mechanical failures, the MIT design makes it possible to convert the Ambu bag back to a hand-operated device if need be.
“Any solution should be utilized only in a healthcare setting with direct monitoring by a clinical professional,” the researchers are careful to note on the MIT E-Vent website. “While it cannot replace an FDA-approved ICU ventilator, in terms of functionality, flexibility, and clinical efficacy, the MIT E-Vent is anticipated to have utility in helping free up existing supply or in life-or-death situations when there is no other option.”