Coronavirus crisis: Companies, engineers rally to SA’s emergency ventilator cause

(Axel Heimken / POOL / AFP)
(Axel Heimken / POOL / AFP)

Over the past few days, engineers and businessmen from around South Africa and the world have reached out with offers to assist or volunteer their services to find an emergency ventilator solution.

News24 reported over the weekend that UK-based company Penlon said it would not assist a group of local businessmen and engineers reproduce a nearly 40-year-old ventilator called the Nuffield 200.

Penlon told businessman Justin Corbett it would be “difficult” to share technical drawings of the Nuffield 200 because it was “currently marketing the device”.

READ: UK company seemingly won't help SA with ventilators marketed as simple solution for coronavirus

Penlon told News24, however, it didn’t have the resources to send someone to hunt for old drawings as it was consumed with emergency production of ventilators for the UK market.

Since then emails and texts have flooded in to News24, many from engineers offering their assistance to Corbett’s group.

Businesses with 3D printing and injection moulding capabilities also offered to assist.

Offers to assist

Among the offers for assistance was Canadian company Thornhill Medical.

Thornhill, based in Toronto, produces a US-military grade portable ICU, which includes a ventilator, and was recently identified by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration as one of several companies that would provide ventilators to meet demand in the country.

Thornhill would make 500 mobile ventilator systems, which would be ready by early April, for the Canadian health system.  

"We are honoured to provide our Canadian-made ventilator system to support Canadians and our healthcare system in its efforts to fight Covid-19," Thornhill Medical CEO Lesley Gouldie told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gouldie, News24 understands, is South African.

News24 reported that South Africa has an estimated 4 000 ventilators in the private sector, and roughly half that number in the public health system.

Ventilators are a crucial tool needed to treat patients who become severely ill with the coronavirus, which causes severe respiratory distress.

Ramped up efforts

Corbett’s team decided to try and reproduce the Nuffield 200 because it is a completely mechanical unit that does not require electricity to function.

The Department of Health also ramped up efforts to procure more ventilators, while National Treasury extended a transversal contract with several suppliers of ventilators. The suppliers import ventilators from a variety of countries, including the US, Germany and China.

South Africa currently does not manufacture ventilators locally at all.

Dublin-based company Medtronic, which also manufactures ventilators, recently made technical specifications of its PB 560 ventilator available for free to companies who wished to produce the ventilators to supply hospitals fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Forbes reported that Medtronic was in discussions with Tesla CEO Elon Musk over a potential manufacturing partnership.

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