The UK is scrambling for ventilators, to the point where veterinary surgeries are offering to donate theirs to hospitals. Currently, the NHS has access to around 8,000 ventilators, and the government has promised a further 8,000 will be coming in the near future. It’s thought 30,000 will be needed in total.
In London, which has had the most cases of the virus in the UK, the ventilator shortage is a “real issue” for hospitals, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told the BBC’s Today programme on Thursday.
To deal with the shortage, one university has pledged to 3D-print ventilator parts and Dyson has developed a design that could produce 10,000 in the coming weeks.
So why are they so important in the coronavirus crisis?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says around one in every five people who catch Covid-19 will need hospital care.
Ventilators are needed for a small proportion of patients who become critically unwell, to the point where they struggle to breathe on their own. Doctors look for signs of respiratory failure – a standard breathing rate is 15 breaths per minute, but if the rate gets a lot higher, a ventilator may be needed.
A patient will be given a general anaesthetic and be hooked up to the ventilator, which then either assists, or takes over, the breathing. “In its simplest form, the ventilator fills the patient’s lungs with air containing high amounts of oxygen,” a spokesperson for the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine explains. “This helps oxygen go to the organs throughout the body, including the brain.”
In time, the hope is that there comes a point where the patients are able to breathe for themselves. “The ventilators have numerous modes that offer varying levels of support allowing them to be both comfortable and conscious before we remove their breathing tube,” says the spokesperson.
In more severe Covid-19 cases, however, patients may enter acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a respiratory failure that causes widespread inflammation in the lungs. The oxygen levels in their blood might drop too low, or their carbon dioxide levels might rise too high. If either of these happen, it can damage vital organs, like the heart and brain.
“If patients develop ARDS they will be in an intensive care unit for weeks and they’ll die without ventilators,” Professor Sarath Ranganathan, a board member of Lung Foundation Australia, told The Guardian.
When patients’ conditions worsen, specialists are needed to fine tune the process using different settings that ventilators can offer.
“These options are not available on the more simplistic designs, for instance those used by veterinary practices,” says the faculty’s spokesperson. In fact, a ventilator with lower specifications is “likely to provide no clinical benefit and might lead to increased harm” in patients, says government guidance.
However, the government believes it’s on track to deliver the thousands of ventilators needed to treat patients. The prime minister’s call to manufacturers last week had an “overwhelming response”, with a range of UK and international businesses offering to provide services – including designing and building new devices, manufacturing components or transporting them to NHS hospitals.
The government has also partnered with a number of UK technology and engineering firms with smaller manufacturers to quickly build existing, modified or newly-designed ventilators at speed, with seven priority projects underway.
The news comes after it was revealed Britain didn’t join an EU-wide scheme for buying life-saving ventilators – because the government did not receive an email invitation in time.