Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Ventilators: SA on its own

By SHANNON EBRAHIM Time of article published Apr 3, 2020

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Five eminent world leaders co-wrote an article this week calling for the world to come together in a new global alliance in the fight against Covid-19.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Halimah Yacob of Singapore, President Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia, and President Lenin Moreno of Ecuador have called on countries to stay connected and to accelerate research and development of treatments and vaccines, and collaborate in the fair distribution of testing kits and medical equipment to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The concern expressed by the five leaders is that countries are turning inward, closing their borders, leaving every country to fend for itself.

The reality of the situation is that countries are, in fact, very much on their own, and the private sector in each country will have to find creative ways of solving the urgent need for medical equipment that traditional trading partners and donors will not be sending due to their own domestic demand.

This creates a huge challenge for each nation that, if unmet, will result in potentially thousands of citizens losing their lives.

South Africa is facing the dire situation of the numbers of those infected with Covid-19 rising dramatically on a daily basis. Very soon, there will be a surge in the numbers of our citizens desperately needing ventilators, which will largely determine life or death for those who cannot breathe on their own.

According to sources in the Health Department, South Africa only has 4000 ventilators in the private health sector, and half that number in the public health sector.

The hard, cold reality is that South Africa is at the back of the queue as far as procurement of ventilators is concerned, as manufacturers in Europe are unwilling to share their designs or technological know-how, and are producing en masse for their own markets.

China appears to be preoccupied with producing tens of thousands of ventilators for the soaring demand in Europe and the US as a priority.

As our Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, has said, the notion of Africa being at the back of the line for life-saving ventilators would be to the detriment of humanity. The response this past week of the UK company Penlon to an urgent request from a group of South African business executives, doctors and engineers regarding reproducing the ventilator they first produced 40 years ago is a lesson in itself.

The South African Emergency Ventilator Project, headed by Justin Corbett, made an urgent appeal on humanitarian grounds to Penlon to make their technical production drawings and specifications available so that the group could fast-track the development of ventilators in South Africa in the next week and beyond.

Penlon’s response was that they had no time to dig out old drawings of ventilators as they were busy trying to meet the demand for ventilators in the UK, and to produce them for the British health-care system.

Patents in the UK expire after 20 years, and the Penlon ventilator was produced 40 years ago. The South African group pleaded with Penlon to reconsider, but their pleas were ignored.

The decision is a great loss for our country and an example of a company selfishly ignoring the life-saving possibilities of such a project that would in no way detract from Penlon’s own manufacturing drive.

Corbett had identified Penlon’s Nuffield 200 as the perfect device to reproduce as it does not have electronics, does not need electricity to work, and is significantly cheaper to build than more sophisticated ventilators.

Had Penlon obliged, its ventilators could have been reproduced and rolled out in record time in South Africa.

All the group of South African engineers, doctors and business people would need is a set of drawings or designs of an existing ventilator, as well as a prototype, in order to produce one themselves.

Sharing such technical knowledge would make a huge difference in saving lives. We can only hope that Chinese companies, which have numerous factories producing tens of thousands of ventilators, would be prepared to share their technical knowledge with South African engineers at this time of grave need.

It would not require Chinese experts to come to South Africa, nor for South Africans to go to China - merely the sharing of a design and the sending of a few sample ventilators.

The world is facing a deadly ­pandemic that will kill hundreds of thousands of people.

Surely it is time for the generosity of spirit to rise above the obsession with profits and patents. If not, then we have truly lost our humanity, and in the end we will all pay the price.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media group foreign editor

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