Coronavirus In SA: Why South Africa must start manufacturing ventilators immediately

There are not enough ventilators in the world right now for the world’s needs, so we must move quickly to do our part, says the writer. Picture: Simon Orlob/Pixabay

There are not enough ventilators in the world right now for the world’s needs, so we must move quickly to do our part, says the writer. Picture: Simon Orlob/Pixabay

Published Apr 3, 2020


In the media, we hear expressions to the effect that, ‘We must be prepared to accept 500,000 deaths from the current coronavirus’, or 50,000, or a million. Regardless of the number invoked, that is not the attitude of those who truly believe in humankind. We must not ‘accept’, in advance, even a single death. Rather, we must be the boxer in the ring, looking for every opening to defeat his opponent, Death.

South Africa desperately needs N95 masks and other personal protective equipment. We make some, but now we need quantities well beyond our current production capacity. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize says South Africa has now approached China and Cuba for help. US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are also providing help to countries in need and should be approached.

Aid is flowing more freely because it is recognised that defeat of the virus must be total. There must be no refuge for the virus anywhere in the world.

We may even get some ventilators from abroad. But there’s the rub!—We cannot get as many as we need.

To survive, the severely ill need ventilators, the machine that helps you breathe or breathes for you, when the airways in your lungs are too swollen and inflamed for you to breathe on your own. We have only about 6 000 of them. Ten times as many will not be nearly enough at peak levels of the pandemic. A ventilator can cost R180,000 or more.

There are not enough ventilators in the world right now for the world’s needs, so we must move quickly to do our part. The pessimists say, it can’t be done in time; the pandemic will be over. But they do not know when the pandemic will be over! More importantly, they should know that this is not the last pandemic or epidemic. We were warned with HIV/AIDS. We were warned with SARS and MERS. But we did not build up our healthcare system because, we said, ‘we cannot afford it’. Now that build-up must be done. Ventilators are a high priority now, but the overall health system—including ventilator production capacity—is vital as our first line of defense for our future.

We must plan on making at least 80,000 ventilators for South Africa! The government should issue letters of intent to purchase from multiple manufacturers who meet the needed specifications. We must make at least 27,000 for Zimbabwe! Make more for Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, DR Congo, and others. We must make more than we expect to need, because they must be on hand everywhere; a person who needs a ventilator now, may be gone before someone can go across town to fetch one.

The Fighters

South African businessman Justin Corbett heads a team of business people, engineers, and doctors who have formed the South Africa Emergency Ventilator Project. The project has the support of the Department of Trade and Industry. The Corbett group chose an old design of the British company Penlon, the Nuffield 200, which they consider the most suitable for South Africa. It is pneumatically driven and does not need electricity. The Nuffield 200 is no longer under patent protection, and the Corbett group is reverse-engineering it.

Corbett requested that Penlon dig into its archives and send the drawings for the Nuffield 200, since this would greatly speed the work. Penlon has said no, saying it is too busy producing its new machine to divert its attention to meet this request. That is a mistaken judgment! If the shared objective is to maximize world production of ventilators in the short term, then a few hours spent in getting the Corbett group closer to production will best serve that end. Corbett has asked Penlon to reconsider.

There are at least one or two South African private investors who have been looking for a ventilator design and an engineering partner who can work from that design, to produce ventilators in this country. The design now being made public online by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may be the answer to their prayers.  MIT describes it as an ‘emergency ventilator that can be built for US$100.’ That’s R1875. The plans are being progressively  posted to the MIT Emergency Ventilator Design Toolbox website as the team tests and perfects its design.

The MIT design begins with the common ambu-bag (ambulance bag), a hand-operated device on the principle of a bellows that a medic can use to keep a patient alive while in transit to the hospital. MIT has designed a device that automates the manual operation.

For Africa, where electric power is often not reliably continuous, the MIT design will require a battery that will last several hours, with one or two additional fully charged batteries on hand for each device, for use between recharging opportunities.

Our entrepreneurs may go out and recruit graduate students in mechanical and electrical engineering from North-West University, Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Pretoria, Vaal University of Technology, and other suitable institutions to build a few devices and then set up assembly lines that can be operated by idled auto workers and skilled workers from other areas.

Some European and American automakers can also help. They are converting some of their capacity to make ventilators on a crash-program basis. Volkswagen’s SEAT plant near Barcelona, Spain is [[already]] [[]] turning them out. Ford Motor Company is teaming with General Electric (GE) to make 50,000 ventilators in 100 days in the United States; GE has the advantage of being a ventilator maker already. BMW is involved in a ventilator project that has the British government as a customer.

But Volkswagen, Ford and BMW also have plants in South Africa. We must call upon these companies to put South Africans to work making ventilators here.

The automotive sector need not be the only recruiting ground. Engineering firms, such as Efficient Engineering—just one of several—that have been involved in the huge, international radio telescope project, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), may also be suitable. Denel could also contribute.

South Africa’s political will to accept and execute this great task is not sufficiently manifest. Cosatu, Saftu and Nactu could give it a boost. Some of their brothers and sisters in the United States—in the International Union of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America—protested on March 30 (while standing six feet apart!) at the GE plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, and at GE’s Boston headquarters, demanding that the company’s jet engine factories also be retooled for ventilator production. CWA President Chris Shelton said, ‘Our country depends on these highly skilled workers and now they’re wondering why they are facing layoffs instead of having the opportunity to use their unbelievable skills to help save lives’.

* Ramasimong Phillip Tsokolibane is the leader of LaRouche South Africa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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