Covid-19: UK company makes about-turn and agrees to help SA with ventilators

(Axel Heimken, Pool, AFP)
(Axel Heimken, Pool, AFP)

UK-based company Penlon has revised its decision not to assist a group of local businessmen, doctors and engineers who have been working to reverse engineer an old mechanical ventilator it first made nearly 40 years ago.

News24 previously reported Penlon had declined to assist the group, led by businessman Justin Corbett, as it was "marketing the device".

Penlon told News24 it had not envisaged the ventilator, the Nuffield 200, would be profitable, despite the company producing units for the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK as part of the country's emergency response measures to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The company simply did not have resources to spend time digging out the technical specifications and drawings Corbett had requested from them, Penlon said.

Now, it appears it has backtracked and will offer the drawings and technical advice to Corbett's group to manufacture it locally.

Currently, no ventilators are manufactured locally and the Corbett group's effort is organised under the umbrella of a non-profit company trading as the South African Emergency Ventilator Project (SAEVP).

The SAEVP decided to focus on the Nuffield 200 because it is entirely mechanical. It has no electronic components, is portable and does not require electricity to operate.

Corbett said: "We have a fantastic array of mechanical manufacturers available in South Africa, but virtually all our electronics are imported. We identified the Nuffield 200 because it would offer a reliable solution without additional time delays in sourcing electronic components."

Penlon itself has marketed the Nuffield as an alternative solution during the Covid-19 crisis.

A screenshot of Penlon's website

A screenshot of the Penlon website showing the Nuffield 200 being billed as a 'simple alternative ventilator solution' for the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is one of two companies identified by the NHS which was selected to produce ventilator units to meet emergency demands.

South Africa has roughly 4 000 ventilators in the private sector, and approximately half that number in the public health sector.

Ventilators are crucial for treating Covid-19 patients who are in respiratory distress.

Only a small percentage of those infected with the virus require ventilators, but if an outbreak of significant size occurs in South Africa, hospitals would quickly be overwhelmed and there would be an acute shortage of ventilators.

After initially publishing details of Penlon's refusal, News24 received dozens of requests to be put in touch with the SAEVP.

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

Offers of assistance came from as far afield as Canada.

One of them, Toronto-based Thornhill Medical, manufactures ventilators for the Canadian government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thornhill's chief executive officer, Lesley Gouldie, is from South Africa.

Other offers came from engineers and businessmen who own and operate 3D printing and injection moulding companies.

A business representative with knowledge of discussions in government work groups over emergency procurement measures, said the SAEVP initiative had seemed the most promising of several avenues being explored.

For more on the novel coronavirus and other stories listen to our podcast here on SoundCloud.


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