A team of recent graduates from Brigham Young University have designed a low-cost, portable ventilator. Originally intended to help newborns in developing countries, the design just received a fast-tracked approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and can now be used in the fight against COVID-19.
Erica Palmer and her husband started the project as undergrads at BYU about eight years ago. It grew out of a competition at the school to create a ventilator that could be used in emergency conditions.
The machines are usually big, complex and expensive, but Palmer said their version is compact and lightweight. And because it’s mechanical and has an internal battery and pump, it doesn’t require software or a hospital's power supply.
“It's really user friendly,” Palmer said. “We made it really durable and portable so that it could be thrown on a motorcycle on a dirt road and be able to go save a baby.”
Typical ventilators can run up to $50,000 per unit, but she said their version can be made for less than $10,000.
When the pandemic hit in March, Palmer and a team of fellow BYU students realized it could help patients with COVID-19, especially as many hospitals were creating makeshift treatment units and facing ventilator shortages.
The team reengineered the original design, making it more powerful to handle an adult’s lungs. And after an expedited FDA-approval process, it’s now ready for production at ATL Technology, a medical manufacturing firm in Springville, Utah.
Palmer said the team hopes to build 500 ventilators within the first month of production. That could scale up to 5,000 each month after, depending on the demand, which may also be on the rise as coronavirus cases are spiking once again in Utah and across the country. Just last week, Utah saw its two highest single-day increases on record.
The state’s hospitals have so far been able to manage caseloads, and only about 1% of patients hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19 have needed ventilators. But state epidemiologist Angela Dunn is warning that if cases continue to rise, hospitals are going to exceed their capacity within the next four to eight weeks.
Palmer said her team has already received interest from the federal government, the Department of Defense and the United Nations, as well as hospitals in Brazil and Mexico.
“We're hoping that some of those will still be an option,” she said. “We'd love to be able to help out in the U.S. if there’s still need here, but we definitely just want it to go wherever it can be used.”
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon