Low-cost Portugal-made ventilator innovators work against the clock in the fight against COVID-19

10ventilator researchAs COVID-19 continues to spread through Portugal, many are concerned about the number of ventilators available in order to aid patients in acute respiratory failure. To remedy this issue, two teams of Portuguese scientists have sprung into action, leading in the development of lung ventilators.

Very different from each other, but complementary, these two ventilator teams, made-in-Portugal, share the same essential quality: the ability to save lives, being available by the end of April, in time to help prevent a severe shortage of ventilators in the country, in the case that the number of critically ill patients exceeds the current capacity for pulmonary ventilation in Portuguese health services.

Without a technological tradition of building ventilators, these teams have found themselves working from scratch to construct prototypes, developed in a race against the clock in response to the global health emergency caused by the virus.

Portugal currently has approximately 1140 ventilators in total. Specifying this, according to the words of the Secretary of State for Health, António Lacerda Sales, the country currently has a “ventilation capacity of about 1142 ventilators, about 525 in intensive care units, 480 in operating theatres and with an expansion capacity of around 134”.

On Thursday, Sales added that the ventilation capacity in the country would double in the coming days, between offers, purchases and loans to buy invasive and non-invasive ventilators: 400 invasive ventilators were offered by several private entities; another 140 non-invasive fans were borrowed; and finally about 900 were newly acquired by the Central Administration of the Health System.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care is now approaching three-hundred, according to the epidemiological bulletin of the General Directorate of Health on Friday. In Italy, doctors are having to go so far as to have to decide between individuals when it comes to using a ventilator for respiratory treatment, a situation Portugal is working hard to avoid by putting as many preparations as possible in place.

The two newly-innovated Portuguese ventilators are a staple of this strategy. One of them is called Pneuma. Its development was coordinated by the Institute of Systems and Computers Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC) and by the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (FEUP). This is what is called a “pandemic campaign ventilator”, or “pandemic fan”. Therefore, it will work as an alternative in emergency situations, for example in ambulances or field hospitals.

The other is the Atena fan and its genesis is occurred at the CEiiA - Centre for Engineering and Product Development (in Matosinhos). It is intended for use in intensive care units, particularly in patients with acute pneumonia, and not as an alternative ventilation system. The cost of producing each of these devices reflects their degree of complexity and different purposes.

For a Pneuma ventilator, this cost is below 300 euros, and for the more complex Atena it is around ten thousand, according to those responsible for the respective projects.

Pneuma is open intellectual property, which can be copied and improved by anyone who wants to do it, and was inspired by the design of an open source ventilation system at Rice University in the United States.

Atena is intended for commercialization, including the international market. Finally, the Pneuma team intends to have 200 units prepared to deliver to the Regional Health Administration of the North (ARS Norte) by the end of this month and then it will be produced on a larger scale by business groups from Marinha Grande, producing as much possible as requests are made. Atena's team hopes to have the first 100 units manufactured by May.

For both projects, the Portuguese scientific, technological, medical and industrial community have come together in a combination of efforts that, following different paths, sought to reach the same goal of saving patients. There’s no doubt that each of these ventilators has its essential place in the fight against this pandemic.

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