Durban inventor breathes hope into COVID-19 battle after winning national ventilator competition
An inventor working day and night in his home garage during lockdown has come up with a cheap ventilator that has won a national competition - and will now be assessed by Denel and other experts for production. The Makers With Purpose ZA Ventilator Challenge at the weekend named a team led by Durban mechanical engineer Nick Matter as the winner. Ventilators are essential for treating people seriously ill with COVID-19 but are expensive and difficult to procure. The competition sought to encourage the design of machines that were easy to use and can be produced in big numbers at low cost. Matter’s team will receive a R5 000 cash prize and their device will be presented to Denel and the University of KwaZulu-Natal for assessment. Trials have shown great promise and doctors were “delighted” with the device. An outbreak of COVID-19 at Durban’s Wentworth Hospital halted clinical testing on the prototype a few weeks ago but work was now back on track, said Matter. He brought together a small team to work on the project. They hope to produce 500 ventilators a week at about R40 000 each.
Dr Jean Pitot, one of the judges of the competition, was impressed with the robustness of the design, the practicality, and its use of widely available components. Pitot commended the team for the lengths they had gone to in testing their prototype. “As things get worse in the country and as the numbers really start to rise, we shouldn’t underestimate the role that makers and engineers can play in coming up with equipment, not just ventilators and hoods, but personal protective equipment systems and components. That can really make a difference.”
Durban anaesthetist Dr Mark Watt said having a basic device to help patients breathe while their bodies fight COVID-19 would be invaluable. “While both private and government hospitals throughout the country are fairly well equipped with highly sophisticated state-of-the-art ventilators which cost up to R1million, in a disaster situation, such as a quickly escalating COVID-19 pandemic, we will never have enough. So to give people a chance, we need basic machines, like the device Matter has made, to help people breathe while they try to fight the virus.”
Fewer than five percent of people who contract coronavirus end up on ventilators but in a population of 50 million, this is likely to be a huge number, he said.
At the start of lockdown, Matter, who runs Solmat Consulting Engineers and designs industrial processes and building services, began work on a “mandatory mechanical ventilator”. “We all became aware of the worldwide shortage of ventilators and the awful decisions doctors have had to face once the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe and the US,” Matter said.
Helping him were electrical engineers Graham Gillet and Miles Walker and fibreglass specialist Mark Lewin, who made the casings. Matter consulted ICU specialist Dr Hussein Cassimjee and Watt, who helped him with the specifications. The machine should provide 20 breaths a minute, and be adjustable in air volume to cater for patients of different sizes.
It was decided to provide a simple but reliable emergency ventilator to be used as an emergency ventilator for limited hours. Matter disappeared into the garage, his lockdown workshop, and emerged with the device, the Savent, after about a month-and-a-half.
Before approaching Professor Mergen Naidoo, chairperson of the COVID-19 Task Team at Wentworth and doctor and academic at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, Matter tried his invention out on himself. “It feels lovely. It does everything for you, so you really have to relax and just let it go,” he said.
Naidoo, in consultation with the Department of Health technical services and Wentworth hospital staff, used a gas analyser to trial the Savent and Matter reported the doctors were “delighted”. “We did a preliminary evaluation with the health technology unit. The results look promising. The key now would be to use it in an actual human subject and this needs to occur based on patient safety issues being addressed and complying with regulatory permissions. Results will need to be forwarded to the National Ventilator Project and final decisions need to come from them.”
Clarence Cowlen of the Department of Health Technology Services said “the clinicians definitely looked impressed with what was witnessed”.
Dr Khanyisa Khoza of Albert Luthuli hospital said Matter’s ventilator would be useful, particularly in under-resourced rural hospitals and field hospitals. She said it was very frustrating trying to save people’s lives, knowing there was equipment that would keep people alive but having no access to it.
Matter is now negotiating the process of getting the machine certified before rolling the project out. “Getting accreditation or approval is difficult because the front line teams are so busy. We can’t use the Savent until it has been certified,” he added.