Arthur McDonald, a Queen’s University professor who shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, is leading an effort by Canadian scientists at two national laboratories to produce a stripped-down, easy-to-manufacture hospital ventilator in time to meet an urgent demand for the machines because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers at the TRIUMF particle accelerator in Vancouver and the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories at Chalk River, Ont., are now aiming to complete two working prototypes of their ventilator, one at each location, over the coming week.
“We feel that every country is going to have to have its own made-in-country solution for ventilators," said Dr. McDonald, who is best known for his experimental work involving neutrinos, elusive particles produced in the core of the sun. “The idea is that the capability is here in the particle physics community. We’re just trying to exploit it.”
How well Canada comes through the COVID-19 pandemic will depend crucially on its supply of ventilators, the complex medical devices that are used to keep patients’ lungs supplied with oxygen when they are unable to breathe on their own.
Dr. McDonald said he became aware of a potential solution when approached by colleagues working with DarkSide, an international physics project based in Italy whose goal is to snare particles of dark matter. The experiment uses argon as its detection medium and its design requires electronic controllers that can precisely regulate gas flow – a capability that is also required of hospital ventilators.
Prompted by the escalating state of the pandemic in Italy, where it has already claimed more than 10,000 lives, Italian researchers on the experiment designed a ventilator last week that is optimized for mass production with inexpensive off-the-shelf parts. The device requires a source of compressed oxygen and electrical power to operate but little else. Unlike conventional ventilators, it has few mechanical parts. Controls and monitoring are contained within an electronics unit that can be accessed via WiFi.
“We need something simple that can be produced at the rate of thousands of units per day," said Cristiano Galbiati, a Princeton University professor who is currently in Milan leading the Italian design.
A prototype is now undergoing a battery of tests in Italy to assess how well it can maintain a patient’s breathing. Dr. Galbiati added that plans for the device will be available to anyone in the world who wants to build one.
“The only thing that is important, if the machine works, is to have it replicated as fast as possible,” he said.
Dr. McDonald said he and his colleagues are now attempting to do exactly that, with modifications to the Italian design to ensure that all parts and materials can be accessed easily within Canada. He added that the Canadian teams are working rapidly and in close contact with each other as the number of severe cases of COVID-19 in the country continues to track upward.
“It’s quite clear that we’re going to have a real requirement very soon," he said.
Many of those most severely afflicted by COVID-19 require a ventilator to survive long enough to fight off the viral infection. A shortage of the devices would put Canadian doctors in the position of deciding who to save, a situation that has already occurred elsewhere. Uncertainties around how the virus is spreading in Canada and the effectiveness of social-distancing measures currently in effect means it is not yet possible to know if the country will have enough ventilators throughout the course of the pandemic.
Claude Larose, a business adviser with the Medical Devices Research Centre in Montreal, part of the National Research Council, said that he and his colleagues have been working with Dr. McDonald to help facilitate the project on several fronts, including with testing and federal approval if the device can meet compliance standards.
NGen, the federal advanced manufacturing supercluster in Hamilton, which has made $50-million in funding available to companies working on COVID-19-related projects, is also advising Dr. McDonald and NRC on how to scale up production.
Mr. Larose said the best-case scenario for Canada would be that domestic suppliers of hospital ventilators can meet the country’s demands. But as the pandemic progresses, he added, “we need a plan B.”
The Montreal centre is also working on an in-house project to reverse-engineer an older-model ventilator that is no longer in production but was approved for use in the 1960s and would suffice in an emergency situation if it were available today.
A third approach is the Code Life Ventilator Challenge sponsored by the Montreal General Hospital Foundation. The competition is open to groups around the world with a $200,000 prize for a winning design for an inexpensive ventilator that can meet performance and safety specifications.
The competition was launched on March 17 with a deadline of midnight Tuesday for teams to submit their designs.
Reza Farivar, a faculty member at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Integrative Neurosciences, is overseeing the competition. He said that its goal is not simply to come up with a single approach to the problem of ventilator supply, but ideally to stimulate a number of viable designs, some of which may be more suitable to addressing the needs for ventilators in other parts of the world.
“Different things may be easier to build in different places,” he said. “There may be great value in having a portfolio of designs that are accessible to manufacturers from around the planet.”
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