Covid-19: Cape sub-sea engineer builds ventilator

By Chelsea Geach Time of article published Aug 7, 2020

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A LOCAL sub-sea engineering expert has designed a non-invasive ventilator that can be made cheaply within South Africa - and it’s just been approved for use on Covid-19 patients.

Mike Iles, an engineer by training and commercial director of MMO, a Unique Group Company, said it all began by responding to the government’s call for local innovation as the pandemic set in.

“It really all started at the beginning of lockdown when the government indicated the shortage of ventilators in the country,” Iles said.

His company was asked to step up to the challenge laid out by the National Ventilator Project, and while the process has taken longer than he expected, they are finally ready to mass produce the device.

“As engineers we did enjoy working on it. It’s nice to know you're building something for life support to help people and keeping it proudly South African,” he said.

Before the pandemic hit, the company specialised in designing and manufacturing offshore diving equipment such as diving bells and saturation chambers, and also produced hyperbaric chambers for medical treatment. This background and expertise in mixing and pressurising oxygen was crucial in preparing them for the challenge of producing a ventilator.

“We were fortunate in that a lot of what we do is designing life support equipment,” Iles said. “We just had the right assets of people, from engineers to quality control inspectors.”

The device they designed, dubbed the Uni-Life 100, is a non-invasive ventilator with a transparent dome that fits over a patient’s head, sealing around the neck. A pipe then supplies a pressurised mix of oxygen and breathing air into the dome, which can be controlled to specific pressures and quantities by the treating doctor. The air that the patient exhales, which would be carrying droplets of the coronavirus, is passed through an exhaust pipe fitted with a viral particle filter, to further protect medical staff.

Dr Frans Cronje is an expert in hyperbaric medicine and worked closely with the team to develop a product that would be simple and effective to use in hospitals.

“Continuous Positive Airway Pressure or CPAP allows the lungs to essentially remain open, for all the areas that transfer gas to be available as far as possible,” he explained.

Cronje said the CPAP device would be used to deliver oxygen to people in a non-invasive way, before resorting to full intubated ventilation.

“That allows us to reach people that otherwise would need intubation, and statistics have shown that once you need to intubate, the outcomes are poor,” he said. “So this device fills the gap between the best we can do with what we have in the ward, to what we have in the intensive care unit, but make it available to many more people.”

Iles said that public and private hospitals in SA have placed orders for the devices, and that he has received enquiries from other countries around the world.

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