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South Africa acts to address ventilator shortage

Written by Silusapho Nyanda

A locally developed ventilator will help patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms to breathe easier.

The fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in South Africa has been boosted with the production of the first ventilator made in the country.

The Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) ventilator helps patients with mild symptoms of COVID-19 to breathe easier by providing a mild level of oxygenated air pressure to keep their airways open. 

The ventilator was designed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in collaboration with a number of local partners and will be rolled out nationwide to patients showing respiratory distress in the early phase of COVID-19 infection.

“The air a person normally breaths has a 23 percent concentration of oxygen. The CPAP ventilator can pump a higher amount of oxygen, helping a person breathe. The CPAP pumps continuous concentrated oxygen. You can increase or decrease the amount of oxygen one is breathing in,” says Executive Manager of CSIR Future Production: Manufacturing Martin Sanne.

Patients using the ventilator are connected via a face mask. Oxygen is drawn from an oxygen gas tank and is mixed with natural air in the ventilator, from where it is transmitted to the mask and breathed in by the patient. Sanne says that in addition to pumping oxygenated air, the CPAP also helps patients exhale.

The CPAP device can be used in both high-tech clinical environments and temporary settings, such as field hospitals and quarantine facilities.

Sanne says the CSIR will have produced 10 000 ventilators by the end of August.  Working with Siemens, Simera, Akacia, Gabler, Umoya and the University of Cape Town, the CSIR produced the CPAP according to World Health Organisation standards.

The first batch of ventilators will be given to state hospitals experiencing pressure due to the unavailability of equipment to deal with COVID-19.

The CSIR started working on the CPAP after the world began experiencing an extreme shortage in ventilators. “Around March and April, there suddenly became a short supply of ventilators from our international suppliers. Where you could get them, they were very expensive so government issued a tender for the production of ventilators,” says Sanne.

The tender was part of the government’s National Ventilator Project within the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition.

The CSIR is also working on a Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure ventilator aimed at helping patients with more severe symptoms of COVID-19. The ventilator will assist with both inhalation and exhalation, either in fixed pressure modes or by sensing the oxygen supply required by a patient and adjusting the pressure accordingly.