The UK government is expected to decide in the coming days on how to plug a shortage of medical ventilators needed to treat coronavirus, with options including mass production of existing designs or a new British model made from scratch.
Companies including Smiths Group, Meggitt, Airbus, McLaren, GKN and Nissan have been working on plans to quickly churn out thousands of the machines, following prime minister Boris Johnson’s plea for industry to lead a national effort to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. The government is aiming to start production by March 30, one person involved said, although this date could be pushed back.
The National Health Service has access to 8,175 ventilators. But government officials have asked UK industry to deliver 5,000 within a month, with a total requirement for 30,000 to support patients expected to have severe respiratory difficulties as the virus spreads. This is a problem as the largest manufacturers of the devices are overseas.
The department of health said it was considering a combination of ramping up production of existing ventilator models and a new designed version.
Following a telephone call last week between the prime minister and dozens of industrial companies including Dyson and JCB, a consortium of aerospace and automotive groups have led the charge.
Different industrial consortiums were “working furiously” over the weekend, according to a person involved in the process. Some efforts are focused on whether it is possible to adapt and ramp up production of a portable ‘Parapac’ ventilator manufactured by Smiths, as well as adapting other ventilator designs.
The aerospace and automotive consortium being co-ordinated by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult research centre is also looking at a “clean sheet” design for a rapidly manufactured ventilator system (RMVS). It will be capable of operating 24 hours a day for 14 days straight, said one person with knowledge of the subject. Meggitt and others are hoping to present a prototype early this week.
At the same time, the industrial consortiums are talking to manufacturers of heavy-duty ICU ventilators about possibly licensing their design for manufacture in the UK.
“The companies will take instruction, if it is the prototype or a licensed design [that is chosen], and work out how to make it quickly,” the person said. “People are working through how the licensing might work. I am fairly confident this will be sorted out in the next three to four days.”
Meanwhile, Smiths is set to quadruple production of its Parapac plus mobile machines made at its Luton plant to around 200 to 300 a week. These do not require external power and are sold to the NHS for less than £5,000, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. Airbus could potentially supply 3D printed components.
Additional factory lines could also be set up to manufacture the machines at a GKN plant also in Luton, or at sites in north Wales run by Airbus and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.
“If we end up with more ventilators than the UK needs that means we will be able to help people in other countries,” said Rosa Wilkinson, spokeswoman for the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.
However, it is unclear whether the type of devices sold by Smiths — which are deployed in ambulances — are suitable for the treatment of patients in intensive care wards.
One NHS anaesthetist said ambulatory ventilators were not considered appropriate for longer-term use. “We use them until we get them to ICU, when we then transfer them to an ICU ventilator,” they added.
In addition to the efforts co-ordinated by the government, a number of smaller engineering companies and inventors are developing their own ventilators in order to help with the worst global public health crisis in a century.
However, any new ventilator design will have to overcome a raft of obstacles. Although the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has indicated it could expedite the approval process, there is scepticism among executives in the sector about how quickly this can be safely completed.
Liability and legal issues also still need to be resolved, said several of those involved.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard